The law, and unintended consequences

A politician–Lyndon Baines Johnson, I think–once said that when considering the impact of legislation, one shouldn’t think about how it could be used, but rather how it could be abused.  Regardless of who said it, it is a remarkably apt and prescient observation.  It is one I take to heart anytime new legislation is proposed.  Because history teaches us that no matter how well intentioned any legislation is, it can and will be abused.  Sometimes it happens sooner rather than later; it took decades before the RICO statutes were used against abortion protesters (I support abortion rights and can’t pass a roadside abortion protest without envisioning swerving and seeing how many of them I can thump off my hood–but I always stay on the road, and while I think they are assholes, they aren’t exactly the Mafia), while on the other hand, The very first target of PATRIOT act provisions was PayPal–for processing offshore Internet gambling proceeds.  I bring these up because both the PATRIOT act and RICO were very popular with the public when first proposed–but were both used in ways the public never imagined, once codified into law.

I consider myself a student of the law of unintended consequences.  It is a fascinating object of study, if for no other reason than, for almost every action taken by any person or group, the unintended consequences outweigh the intended in number and scope.  They are sometimes predictable, sometimes not, and often best understood in the light of painful hindsight: “of course, we should have realized that would happen”.

The Supreme Court upheld the most odious of the Arizona provisions Monday, the one requiring officers to demand “papers, please” of anyone they “reasonably suspect” to be illegal.  Minority groups–specifically, Hispanic minority groups–are appalled by the decision, while the white majority is largely un-phased.  This, I predict, will be a mistake.  The complacency of the white majority is based, I suspect, on the noble principle of “who cares, it isn’t my problem, it doesn’t apply to me”.  While this is a popular principle, and one many people adopt in many circumstances, it is so critically flawed that I would seriously consider formally nominating it as a logical fallacy.

Here in America, everything applies to you.  The 14th Amendment, the Constitution, the Civil Rights Act, Title IX, one way or another, everything applies to you.  That means you can pass all the laws you want with a wink, wink, nudge, nudge, this-only-applies-to-darker-skinned-folk intention, but sooner or later it’s going to apply to you.  Note that I don’t say it might.  Make no mistake: it will.  The only options are a)  Sooner or b) Later–but once you pass that law, it’s coming for you.  You can give cops Tasers so they don’t have to beat the next Rodney King into a multi-million dollar settlement, but if you think that means it will never apply to White Grandma™, you are pitifully naïve.

I say this because all the focus on Arizona Law SB1070 has been on immigrants–which is exactly where its supporters want it to be.  What nobody is focusing on is the Law of Unintended Consequences.  Because that states “sooner or later, a white guy is getting locked up for not having papers”.  What the citizens of Arizona have enacted is a major legal harassment law.  They will come to regret it.

In the short term, this law will only be a nuisance for the people it is supposed to be a nuisance for:  residents of Arizona with excessive melanin; that’s just temporary.  It is only a matter of time before some cop, tired after a long shift, perhaps beset by issues in his personal life, gets utterly fed up with the overly-entitled attitude of some lily-white speeder and demands citizenship papers.  Because none of us (save perhaps naturalized citizens of the former Soviet Union, who yet remain prepared for such challenges) carry these things around with us, said irate jerkwad will go to jail.  Sure, he’ll get out once his wife or some other relative can show up with the requisite papers–but the point will have been made.  The guy will have learned his lesson.  The cop will have gotten his revenge.  And a whole new game of “fuck with the douchebag speeder” will have been invented for the law enforcement personnel of Arizona.  It will just take one.  Every dam break starts with a single drop.  The cop in question will boast about it at the station, others will think it sounds like fun, and suddenly, a law intended to chase the beaners back to beanland becomes a nightmare for the “real people”.

Jan Brewer, and other politicians in Arizona, are publicly praising the decision of the Supreme Court.  I daresay a majority of the people in Arizona are cheering with them.  Their elation is temporary; it is predicated on the presumption that “this will never apply to me or anyone I care about.”  I submit that this condition is a mirage.

Every action by an individual or a group has consequences, both intended and unintended.  The unintended usually outweigh the intended in both number and scale.  Governor Brewer reacted to the Supreme Court ruling saying “Today’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court is a victory for the rule of law.”  Of this I have no doubt.  Brewer and I are in total agreement on that particular point.

I would say that our only point of contention would be to which law, specifically, her statement applies.

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