Last week Maya and I were at Michael’s craft supply store in Manhattan, and standing at the checkout we saw a display of spray paint with a sign taped over it:
Turns out that this law was one of the many put in place by Mayor Bloomberg during his three terms, and I had missed it. (Not difficult to do considering the number of new laws he put into place in his 12 years, but still…)
I posted the photo on FB with the caption: ”So let’s get this straight: You can drive at age 16, vote and serve in the military at 18 but you have to be 21 or over to buy SPRAY PAINT?? Seriously, people – get a grip.”
A few friends agreed with me, but then others told me that it wasn’t ridiculous, as most of the people under 21 who would buy spray paint are probably getting high or vandalizing with it. I pointed out that such a law does nothing to address the problem, and simply makes criminals of those who get their hands on it, simultaneously punishing those who want to use it for its intended purpose.
The usual arguments ensued (safety being chief among them), and my concerns were summarily dismissed. After all, how many people does this law really affect? Why should we care?
Here is why we should care.
When I studied in Berlin in 1986, three years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, our group made several sanctioned trips into East Berlin. Each time we were the guests, either of a government agency or official, or members of the Freie Deutsche Jugend (the “Free German Youth”).
At some point during each visit, our hosts would tell us how much safer the German Democratic Republic was than the United States. They railed against the graffiti that covered the western side of the Wall, rightly pointing out that once someone touched the wall they had entered the GDR, since the Wall was built 2 or 3 feet back from the actual border. They said that such vandalism was a sign of the corruption and depravity of the West – a sign of lack of respect for authority. The Eastern side of the Wall was of course untouched – because if you got that close to it you would be shot – , but so were all walls and buildings in East Berlin. They asked us about our slums and our unemployed, about our rampant drug problems and inner city crime. And how could we respond? They were right. East Germany had no graffiti, no vandalism, no drug problems, no unemployment and virtually no theft or other crime.
And no freedom either, despite the name of their youth organization. But if we dared to point that out, we were told that the government’s job was to keep its people safe (even from themselves), and that any restrictions – anything we saw as a lack of freedom – was all done in the name of the peoples safety.
Which is why all these years later, a sign in Michaels and subsequent comments in support of the spray paint law brought those talks with East German party members and government officials back to the forefront in my mind.
Especially when I’m told such laws are needed to keep kids “safe”. (As it turns out, the spray paint law has nothing to do with kids getting high and everything to do with graffiti and vandalism, although the attorneys arguing in favor of its implementation did put the safety spin on it by saying that such a law would keep neighborhoods from being “terrorized” by these vandals.)
Think I’m overreacting? That one law on the sale of spray paint does not a fascist regime make?
Perhaps, but the ever more prevalent idea that our government’s job is to regulate everything in order to keep us safe? That scares me, because one law becomes two becomes twenty becomes thousands and pretty soon it’s not just products that are regulated, but speech both written and spoken, and where we can gather or travel and what church we do or do not attend and perhaps who you associate with and what you study, etc.
Most people I know are consumed with things like confronting NSA spying or obtaining equal rights for gay couples. And both of those things are important, don’t get me wrong. But as far as maintaining our overall freedom we are missing the proverbial forest for the trees. We are so intent on the big things that we are missing all the ways in which we are willfully handing over our freedom, one small piece at a time, all in the name of safety. We are giving up basic things that dissidents in the East sometimes died trying to protect or regain.
You see freedom will not disappear in a big way, all at once. The government will not wake up tomorrow and tell everyone that freedom of speech or religion no longer applies. If that happened, there would be massive resistance. But small things? Like the sale of spray paint? Those fall into place almost without notice and pretty soon my friends are telling me I’m overreacting and it’s ok – it’s about safety and anyway there are bigger problems to worry about.
Still think I’m over doing it?
Ok, let’s talk about informing on people to the police. You see, in East Germany, if you did something “wrong”, and a helpful neighbor told the Stasi police about it, you could be hauled away for questioning or even imprisoned. Today, in this country, a similar situation occurs almost every day. If you read Lenore Skenazy’s blog, you know what I’m talking about. A mother is arrested for letting her 11 and 7 year old kids walk to a pizza place. How do you think the police knew about it? And why should it be a punishable offense to let your kids do what even 30 years ago all kids did? If the word “safe” just popped into your head, as in “The world is not as safe now” or “It was done to keep those kids safe”, I would say you have just proved my point. One of my friends (an actual friend, not just a FB “friend”) was at a gas station and saw a mother leave her peacefully sleeping child in the car while she ran in to pay for her gas, and wondered if he’d done the right thing by NOT calling the police!
So how can we stop this chipping away at our freedom? The first step is to notice it, which very few people seem to be willing to do. Question why, stop informing on people for nothing, and realize that our freedom is in our own hands. Let’s not give it away.