Let's not give up freedoms so easily

In "It's a Wonderful Life," George Bailey, serving as a harried rationing officer, shouts to the crowd pressing in on him, "Hey! Don't you know there's a war on?"

We now hear the same admonition from less sympathetic characters, those who would ration our personal liberties.

In times of war, patriotism demands sacrifice, we're told. So accept without protest the edict that, to deter terrorism, the State Patrol can search any vehicle, at random, before it's allowed to board state ferries. Those of us who live in the West Sound and rely on the state ferry system have conflicting interests here. We certainly don't want to be blown out of the water by some lunatic or fanatic (or anyone else), nor do we want to be subject to what the American Civil Liberties Union accurately calls "suspicionless searches."

To wade into vagaries of search-and-seizure law is to risk drowning in a sea of technicalities. Let's just try to remember the ideal at the root of the legality. The government (i.e., the police) should have a darned good reason to demand that an individual submit to a search of her person or property. A search is not to be conducted at a whim, or on the odd chance that it might turn up something.

With no more probable cause than idle curiosity or even the general desire to deter crime, a cop on the street demanding to know where I'm going should be owed no more than a polite, "None of your business, officer."

Washington State Ferries Capt. Tim Koivu told a P-I reporter: "If I was sitting next to a guy in a car (who) wouldn't let the police officer search it, I'd be concerned what he's hiding in there."

Would the skipper have the same reaction to his neighbors' refusing a police search of their house without a warrant, or the insistence of someone being taken into custody to not answer questions until after conferring with an attorney?

Assertion of one's rights should not be taken as an admission or even a suggestion of guilt, or all our liberties are at risk.

And don't bother with the "What harm can it do?" argument. The retention of liberties need not be justified by those who possess them, but the erosion of liberties, no matter how slight, must be justified by government.

Ask instead, "What good will it do?" Probably not much.

What is the real risk that, in this vast nation, the Washington State Ferries system is a terrorist target? If there is no threat, deterrence accomplishes nothing.

But even granting some level of threat, will random searches of vehicles for weapons and explosives eliminate or diminish the threat?

What if knives or other potential weapons (box cutters, pick axes) are found in a car search? What if a search of the trunk turns up a rifle, shotgun or pistol? Will the driver have to prove ownership? How? (Firearms are not registered in Washington state, although most new purchases are.) Will the knives or firearms be confiscated or boarding denied for the vehicle? Or will the still "armed" passenger be allowed on board?

While it makes sense to stop a car with a trunk full of plastique from rolling onto a ferryboat, consider what the ferry system allows to roll on board all the time.

"Boats on trailers may carry two outboard motor fuel tanks of up to six gallons each," according to the declaration on Washington State Ferries' official sailing schedule.

"You may also carry up to two free-standing propane tanks in addition to those installed in recreation vehicles, not to exceed 100 pounds water equivalent weight each (approximately 25 gallons)," the ferry guidelines read.

Twelve gallons of gasoline? Fifty gallons of propane? For the determined terrorist, there would seem to be plenty of destructive power in that stuff that would be waved on through as car trunks are being searched for more exotic bomb makings.

Might terrorists be deterred by random vehicle searches at ferry terminals? Let's say maybe. Would criminals be caught and contraband recovered by random house-to-house searches or frisking every 15th person who comes down the city sidewalk? More likely, but no more acceptable.

If this is indeed a war between freedom and terror, why should freedom surrender so easily?

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