Few threats to Americans' civil liberties come from outright hostility to constitutional rights. They are much more subtle and often unintentional: They come wrapped in reasonableness and "common sense."
Doesn't it make sense to give lie-detector tests to government employees to make sure they're not spies? Isn't it reasonable that people on welfare have to take drug tests to ensure they get the treatment they need so they can get a job?
These aren't hypothetical questions. They're justifications for real actions by governments:
*In the near-hysteria following allegations that China had stolen atom-bomb designs, Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson announced a host of new security measures, including mandatory polygraph (lie detector) tests for more than 12,000 lab employees and contractors.
Never mind that the jury is still out on just how serious Chinese spying is and who's involved. Or that polygraphs are inadmissible as evidence in most criminal trials. Or that really clever crooks and spies can fool the machines. Or that there's a constitutional right against self-incrimination. Counterespionage officials are in love with them, believing they've worked in the past.
Fortunately, Mr. Richardson now says he'll limit the tests to "several hundred" people handling top secret information and the most sensitive nuclear secrets. That's a step in the right direction. Improved counterintelligence investigations and procedures would be a better response.
*A rule that took effect in Michigan Oct. 1 requires all welfare recipients to take drug tests or forfeit their benefits. Congress authorized such tests in the 1996 welfare-reform law, but Michigan is the first state to require them of everyone on welfare. A few other states mandate them only in cases where drug abuse is suspected.
State officials say substance abuse is an obstacle toward getting many recipients off assistance and back to work. They point out that many employers require such tests anyway.
Several welfare recipients are suing, charging that the tests are an unconstitutional search and invasion of privacy. Given the courts' unfortunate acceptance of drug testing in other areas, we're not sure they'll prevail.
But that doesn't make the tests right.
Drug testing is subject to fraud and "false positives." And it won't detect the most abused substance of all - alcohol. Michigan should back off and require such testing only when welfare case workers have a grounded, reasonable suspicion that a client in abusing drugs.
With new technology, such as genetic or DNA testing, adding to the possibility of further eroding privacy and constitutional rights, vigilance is increasingly important. When the rights of any citizen are threatened, so are the rights of all.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society