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“There Was a Report of Guns and Drugs”


On May 16 New York City police officers dressed in riot gear broke down a woman’s door and exploded a concussion grenade in her Harlem home. The woman, 57-year-old Alberta Spruill, was unarmed. She died a few hours later of a heart attack.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly both apologized to family members within hours of the incident. Asked to account for the paramilitary-style “no-knock” raid on Spruill’s home, the mayor explained it like this: “There was a report — obviously in this case erroneous — but a report of guns and drugs.”

Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly blame a flawed tip from an informer for causing the police error. “[The] Police Department’s motives were something that nobody should question,” the mayor assured the public. “Whether or not it was done correctly, whether we could have prevented it or it was just one of those unfathomable accidents, we don’t know. That’s what the police commissioner conducts an investigation for.”

Translation: Don’t worry your pretty little heads — that dead woman’s relatives will have a plausible-sounding explanation, sooner or later, of why it was their loved one’s home was mistakenly attacked early one morning as she got ready for work. Maybe they’ll put it down to a leadership-oversight problem and send someone off to early retirement.

But whatever conclusions they reach, don’t count on anyone’s discussing the real reason for Ms. Spruill’s death: She was another victim in the government’s war on drugs and its growing crusade against guns.

There was a time in this country when people saw the government merely as a protector. Unless someone was doing actual harm to another person, the essential guiding principle in America was that people should be left free to regulate their own affairs without a government agent’s breathing down their neck.

In short, as long as a citizen’s actions weren’t aggressive, the most he faced was the moral condemnation of his fellows. As much as certain behaviors may not have been liked, they were tolerated as the price of a free society.

The trouble is, most Americans today view merely doing something they don’t like as the moral equivalent of an act of aggression. Offending the sensibilities of the majority runs the very real risk of getting a boot on the neck, or a stun grenade in the face — whether or not you’ve actually committed a violent act against someone. No legal distinction is made between acts that violate people’s rights and those that merely transgress prevailing moral sentiments.

In America, drugs are considered evil, and so they’re illegal. In New York City, guns are also considered evil, and so they’re illegal.

Americans long ago abandoned the libertarian principle that holds that government exists only to protect individuals from acts of violence committed by others, and that all criminal laws should reflect only that aim. As a result, peaceful activities that people just don’t like or that they consider immoral are grounds for calling in the SWAT team — especially when those activities involve guns or drugs.

In the case of Alberta Spruill, the cops were enforcing the law. An investigation into whether they followed correct procedures is warranted, but an examination into the laws they were enforcing is even more important. It’s time to reconsider both the war on drugs and the war on guns, for the sake of future innocent victims.

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