This article appeared in the Standard-Times of New Bedford, Massachusetts, on 5/13/98
Page B5, Opinion; Copyright 1998 by Beth David

Success -- in curbing our rights

Well, they did it. Westport forced Breathalyzer tests on prom-goers. The heavens did not open in anger, the earth did not shake in dismay, and the winds did not howl in shame.

Nonetheless, we are all diminished by it. Undoubtedly, anger and dismay erupted from some people reading that. They'll say if just one kid stayed safe ... Because safety is always the favorite argument of the self-righteous. So, where do you all stand on the issue of candid sex education in schools, including condom distribution? Or on increasing the accessibility of safe abortions for under-age women? Or needle exchange programs? Are you fighting just as hard for these proven safety measures? After all, the ultimate goal is safety, isn't it?

I applaud the students who spoke out against Breathalyzers. They showed courage, more courage than the adults who so quickly trampled the Constitution in the hysterical stampede of MADD, et al. If MADD had its way, we'd all be under martial law. But at least we'd be safe, right? Even parents who bristle at the treatment of their children won't dare speak out. And therein lies another justification: "If someone got hurt, I'd feel so guilty."

Well, this isn't about your guilt. This is about the United States Constitution, the foundation of our system of laws. And it's about our commitment to the rule of law. It's about that pesky Bill of Rights, and teen-agers who want fair treatment, but won't get it. because, apparently, just being a teen-ager is probable cause.

Two equally alarming things are happening here. One is the deepening demonization of teen-agers, the other is the runaway proliferation of laws created to protect people from themselves: helmet laws, seat belt laws, tobacco advertising laws.

Supporters of these laws will first say that they save lives. These people will then ask you who's going to pay for the care of the "idiot" who doesn't wear a helmet and is head-injured for life? Or for the person who crashes through the windshield? What they really mean is, Who is legally liable? Whom can we sue? Whom can we blame? The person serving the drinks or the one buying the drinks? Certainly not the person drinking the drinks.

I personally find it impossible to believe that the fear of a lawsuit by a parent, or the family of a drunk prom-goer, played no role in this latest capitulation to the body snatchers. Why else would they test the kids as they left the prom? If you test them on the way in and you suspect them on the way out, surely you're suggesting you have no clue what's going on in between! Did it ever occur to the adults at the prom to pay attention? To watch the kids as they dance and otherwise socialize?

Why bother with all that trouble? It's easier to breathalyze them. Then you can blame it on the machine. You won't get sued; the person who set up the machine or operated it will get sued. And you can feel good about yourself.

To compare Breathalyzer tests at proms to metal detectors at airports perverts the whole purpose of legitimate safety measures. When someone tries to get a bomb or a gun on a plane, it is clearly with evil intentions. To compare having a drink (or one too many) on prom night to a murderous attack in the sky is ludicrous. What kind of life does this prepare teen-agers for, when we treat them as mass murderers just waiting for the slightest opening to strike?

The record turnout at the prom is being touted as a measure of the program's success. And it is -- success in stripping away yet another of our dwindling rights. Success at creating a generation of obedient followers who accept that they are lucky they were allowed to have a prom at all; who will gratefully slip into the job slots that corporate America creates for them. Success in proving that the struggle between the individual and the system is inevitably won by the system. Success in creating a generation of people who can prove from experience that democracy does nothing for them or their self-respect.

Congratulations, Westport High School. You win.


Beth David owns YASNY Designs in Fairhaven