What’s Happened to Common Sense? By Anonymous
Over-reaction and over-reach regarding public safety have become a pandemic in this country.
From the little kid tossed out of school for doing something millions of little kids have done millions of times (point his index finger and thumb and say “bang”) to the secret spying on email and phone records and the drones we’re soon going to have flying around everywhere, these days we seem to take the shotgun-to-kill-a-fly approach to nearly every security issue.
But while these instances are sometimes so absurd as to be comical, they raise serious questions regarding personal liberty: How much encroachment is too much; where do we draw the line; and the question that is the title of this piece. I invite readers to comment on these questions and the others below raised by this personal example.
Recently I applied for a job at a local public institution (which shall remain nameless) but where I’ve been a regular patron for many years. I interviewed with the director and the head of the department which had the job opening.
The director called to offer me the job. I accepted. Then she said I was to stop by her office and fill out a consent form for a background check. I was surprised since this was a simple clerical position at an innocuous organization, and there was nothing about a background check on the job description and it had never been mentioned in the interviews, but I went and got the form from the director’s assistant.
The consent form asked for my Legal (in bold type and underlined) name, address, social security number and birth date, basically my complete identity on a one-page form. Screening would include:
“Local & National Criminal background records/information”
“All 50 State Sex Offender Registries”
“Full Address Trace”
“Social Security Verification”
And of course the form required that I release everybody involved “from any and all claims of liability…” etc. etc. if they screw up.
Now, let’s stop for a second and marvel at the bold irony of that clause – they want my permission to dig through my history so past mistakes can be used against me, but they refuse to be held responsible for any mistakes they might make. Sounds kind of like what lawyers do and brought something to mind (see Luke 11:46 – preferably the eloquent King James version).
Anyway, I said, “Wow,” and asked the assistant if the director was available. No, she was out. I dropped by twice over the next couple of days, wanting to speak personally to the director since it was a delicate issue, but she wasn’t in.
Finally I emailed her and said while I have nothing to hide (and I don’t ) I’m not comfortable sending my identity information off to some out-of-state company I’ve never heard of, and since I know you and most of the staff, and I lived up the street from the department director when I was a kid, and I know three of your board members, one of them since the first grade, can we waive the background check? The director replied ‘no, it was mandatory’, and said she didn’t know I’d tried to see her and since she hadn’t heard from me she offered the job to the next candidate on the list.
I was a little irked since she had offered the position to me and I accepted it and thought we had an agreement and a week later…apparently not. (Ah, well). Still, the director said something in her email that got me thinking. She said everybody had to be screened; she even made someone she went to church with do it. I shook my head and thought, “Why?!”
The answer most likely would be: We have to screen everybody so it’s fair.
But doesn’t forcing everyone to comply really just multiply the unfairness of it, especially when you do it to people you know? Say you screen 100 applicants and reject one. Then you’ve put 99 people through invasive scrutiny for no reason and potentially exposed them to identity theft. And if you know some of them personally, go to church with them, doesn’t that compound the unfairness? Plus, if this organization has such a problem with security they have to put everyone through a background check, how safe would my information be in their hands?
And what offenses would be grounds for rejecting an applicant; does the amount of time since an offense matter; would a 30-year old DUI on an otherwise clean record mean you’re out of luck? What are the guidelines, or is the decision just arbitrary?
Of course, if you resist as I did, then you’re automatically suspect, you’re marked, like Hester Prynne in Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” a cautionary tale about justice in a society that thought burning people alive for being witches was a good idea. The only difference, she was guilty, I’m not. Even so, perhaps I’ll wear a big red “N” meaning “No” or even better, “HN” for “Hell No.” (“FN”? I’ll leave it to the reader…)
The director said mandatory screening is “for the protection of the (organization)...” a worthwhile goal. But think of it this way: Drunk drivers cause property damage and kill and injure thousands of people a year. So do we mandate that all cars have a breathalyzer hooked to an off switch and say everyone has to pass the breathalyzer or they can’t start their car?
If everyone has to do it that would make it “fair” wouldn’t it?
Obesity is a serious health problem. Do we require all grocery stores to have a scale and a height chart and mandate that any customers over a certain height-weight ratio can only buy raw vegetables? (“No Ding-Dongs for you, Porky…”) Didn’t former Mayor Bloomberg already do that in New York City, outlawing big gulp sodas? Where does it end?
Of course, there should be exceptions. The consent form I was asked to sign stated that the company doing the background screenings, SSCI, is the number-one choice of Parks and Recreation departments for checking volunteers. Certainly you want to screen people who are interacting directly with vulnerable populations like children in the local baseball or soccer leagues, especially volunteers with no paying job at stake. But I was applying for a paid position in which I’d have had very limited to no contact with children or other sensitive groups or information.
Speaking of children, it seems to me that mandatory-for-all background screenings are a close relative of the “zero tolerance” rules practiced in many schools. Isn’t zero tolerance really the same as intolerance? Is that what the schools are teaching children with these policies?
Presumption of innocence under the law goes back to the Roman Empire; it means the rights of the individual trump the authority of the state. Innocent until proven guilty is the foundation of justice in America and many other nations today.
Regarding personal freedom, Benjamin Franklin wrote: “They who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
As for tolerance and forgiveness – see Luke, et al.