Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Eugene Volokh and Matthew Yglesias are ridiculing the Secret Service for sending an agent to investigate an editorial cartoon depicting the president being assassinated. "The cartoonist is obviously not trying to threaten the President's life," observes Volokh--quite correctly, I might add. "[I]f the Secret Service is wasting its time on this....that shows pretty bad judgment on the part of its managers." Writes Yglesias: "you have to be extraordinarily unfamiliar with the concept of editorial cartooning to think that something like this could possibly constitute a death threat against the president."

I'm fairly confident, though, that "bad judgment" had nothing to do with the decision to send an agent around to question the cartoonist. The Secret Service has an iron-clad policy of investigating all such depictions--even those that common sense dictates are not serious threats. In this particular case, the cartoon was actually portraying the president in a sympathetic light, as a victim of a metaphorical assassination by political opponents. But the Secret Service launched a routine investigation anyway.

Why does the Service have such a rigid policy? Well, imagine if it were a matter of agent or managerial discretion within the service--as Volokh evidently believes it should be--to decide whether a given depiction of an assassination was plausibly a threat, and hence worth investigating. In no time flat, various political groups would start alleging that the Service's choices of which cases to investigate were politically biased against them (or against the nutbars allied with them). The Service would come under massive political pressure to "lay off" one type of threat after another, until the entire policy was in tatters, and routine investigations of oddball threats were abandoned altogether. Then one day one of those uninvestigated threats would turn out to be real, and accusations would fly about dangerous laxity at the Secret Service.

The real problem, of course, is not the Secret Service's policies regarding potential assassination threats, but rather America's bizarre antinomian culture, under which law enforcement officers are generally characterized as both all-powerful demonic monsters and useless, bumbling idiots. Perhaps if a routine visit from a Secret Service agent were seen as a welcome opportunity to help a hardworking public servant resolve any doubts and close a perfunctory investigation, instead of as a brutal assault by the Keystone Gestapo, the Secret Service would be able to exercise more discretion and direct its resources more efficiently.

And so, too, for that matter, would those Americans who obsess endlessly over grossly overblown allegations of "abuse of police power".

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