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First Principles

Red Flag, White Flag

Do Americans really want to adopt an informer culture?


- September 6th, 2019
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In the wake of recent incidents in El Paso and in Dayton, our legislators—even more than usual—have been enthusiastic in their now-ritual “Dance of Death” for the Second Amendment. Their cries for more draconian background checks are joined by what is nothing less than a proposal to transform America into an informer culture. “Red flag laws” themselves raise the reddest of flags.

Some of our legislators would encourage Americans to advise law enforcement of friends, family, neighbors, and strangers who (in their opinion) might be inclined to carry out public slaughters with firearms.

Law enforcement, in turn, would find itself more muscular so informed. The information provided by informers, after all, must be used. Otherwise, it’s just written in water with a spoon. Although the precise details of a “red flag” law’s provisions remain a bit murky, we well understand the nature and propensities of government bureaucracies. What is filed today is acted upon tomorrow. We should also acknowledge human nature, and consider how we’ll respond to a red flag reality.

Informer cultures are familiar to us. The Soviet Union and the entire Eastern Bloc recently provided an illustrative example. The proposed “red flag laws” reprise the Bolshevik practice of state intervention in the lives of others, those with improper thoughts. This is what one citizen judging another’s propensities reduces to.

Eventually, everything is a sign of a would-be mass shooter. Ownership of a single firearm, then voting Republican, and then behaviors and expressions which at present only a poet or dramatist could entwine with an incubating mass murderer. Before long, anybody can inform on anyone, about anything. And many will. To observe that this has a chilling effect on conduct and expression is not especially insightful.

Many of us are all too familiar with life in an informer society. Facebook is about the lives of others in more ways than one. Complaints to the Virtual Stasi routinely trigger account suspensions, popularly known as “Facebook jail.” There’s even a virtual death penalty. My account, for example, was completely eradicated, without warning. So, at the same time, were two backup accounts under different email addresses and usernames that I’d maintained against this very eventuality. Facebook knows who I am at the IP address level.

I don’t know why I was terminated, exactly. I think it’s because of recent comments about . . . red flag laws. I’d also speculated that Facebook would react to President Trump’s threatened executive order clamping down on social media by purging undesirables ahead of its issue. This is the way citizens respond to legislators’ threats of more and better gun control, right?  We run out and buy more guns. Big Tech is adaptive, too.

Yes, we’ll all fear the informer. Most of us, having realistic expectations for the outcomes of any encounter with the state, will govern ourselves accordingly. We’ll watch what we do and say, of course. On this grim note, the commentator’s warnings about informer culture generally end. There’s more, though. And by some lights, the rest is even worse.

We’ll come to dread not only the informer but the informing. We’ll all acquire the power to ruin lives by picking up a telephone or submitting a web form to an agency. What do human beings do when thus tempted? When, surrounded by menace, the opportunity to pre-empt is ever-present? When we have the means to punish any slight, howsoever trivial or imaginary? History suggests it is an extraordinary character that doesn’t eventually succumb. And, having succumbed, how does one live with it?

It is in this way that an informer culture dissolves the consciences of citizens, who can no longer endure their reprimands. Red flag laws and the informer culture they conjure thus spell the end of this thing of ours, this republic of individuals. If anything in our present political life is unacceptable, it is this.

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