The sliding constitutional scale

Last week, when a mentally troubled, overly armed young man shot a bunch of people in my town then died at the hands of law enforcement, I became a member of the club of people who say, "Things like that don't happen in Santa Monica."

They didn't used to.

As Silicon Beach, with a robust tourism industry and ludicrously high property values, Santa Monica is attractive to people with money and the criminals drawn to them like rats to refuse. But most crime here is committed against property, not people. FBI figures from 2011, the most recent complete year for which data are available, reveal that 369 violent crimes were committed in the city versus 2,971 property crimes. According to the local police department, there were two homicides in Santa Monica in 2010, three in 2011 and one last year. Only one of those involved a gun, and that was an officer-involved shooting.

Last week, another shocking story broke simultaneously with the Santa Monica College shootings. It affected everyone in the U.S., and, unlike in Santa Monica, its violence was figurative. News that Americans' communications behavior is daily fare for government and government-adjacent snoops rendered the assault on our privacy no longer speculative, but concrete. As the "Daily Show" snarked, "Good News! You're Not Paranoid."

What strikes me about these parallel stories is their stark depiction of a constitutionally bipolar America.

Despite a history of psychological difficulty sufficient to get himself tossed into a psyche ward, the man authorities and all sentient people say is responsible for the six deaths in Santa Monica (including his own) managed to accumulate an arsenal of weapons the police chief said could shoot 1,300 rounds.

Despite the disturbing regularity of these lethal "can't happen here" rampages, Congress remains loath to enact meaningful gun restrictions because keeping Americans safe from these madmen imposes an unacceptable cost to the Second Amendment. See, it's a constitutional thing.

Now we know that the National Security Agency is secretly looking at everyone's communications and Internet activity, and that the judicial branch of the federal government secretly enables its desire to do so. We also know, courtesy the Washington Post/Pew Research Center, that 62 percent of us are just fine with that. We believe that investigating one terrorist threat that requires scrutiny of millions of people tweeting how cute the Starbucks barista is imposes an acceptable cost to the Fourth Amendment. See, it's not a constitutional thing.

No one said your thoughts have to be lofty, but they are yours to share as you wish. Complacency over mass surveillance of your net surfing interests and of whom you choose to talk to sacrifices the foundational presumption of innocence. Why do we believe that assault to our legal system is less a threat to our security than maniacs mowing down people with semiautomatic rifles?

Congress isn't worried about the NRA calling its shots (an apt metaphor if ever there was). We citizens aren't worried about who's guarding the guards.

Why don't we see how small a step it is from mass surveillance to a Watergate-like grab for personal information that has as much to do with a phone call from Yemen as it does with a government wonk acting out? If you're among the folks who believe there's nothing wrong with being monitored if you have nothing to hide, you embrace a naive assumption that you're secure. You fail to understand that the abuse of power thrives where power remains secret and without oversight.

So as I watch my little city grapple with the fallout of being a mass-shooting dateline, as I watch how we react to widespread official invasions of privacy, I worry not that appreciation of the Constitution is selective, but that we're making the wrong choices.

If we don't control the guns, we pay only lip service to our desire to be safe and secure. If we don't control the spies, the only thing left out in the cold will be our principles.


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