The U.S. – becoming a checkpoint nation

I have encountered three police checkpoints in the last 24 hours, and not at the airport, but in my backyard here on the San Francisco peninsula. Last night, enroute to a chamber concert, we were held up for 15 minutes at a sobriety checkpoint where the traffic backed up for over a quarter-mile. Despite a half-dozen motorcycle officers, an equal number of patrol cars, a huge DUI van, and approximately 20 safety-vested ground personnel, traffic ground to a halt as they inspected licenses and gave each driver in turn the hairy eyeball. As we crawled forward, the motorcycle cops prowled along the jammed traffic, peering into windows, looking for signs of guilty behavior, and pulling over cars filled with hapless high school students for closer examination.

I suppose I should be happy they are checking for DUIs, but I have always been alarmed at the cost of these checkpoints in terms of conditioning Americans to the once-unwelcome gaze of Big Brother. On the way back we passed the same checkpoint, still in full swing despite — or perhaps because of — the late hour. Floodlights set up on the roadway, and a smaller but still substantial backup. But the real surprise appeared after we got on the freeway, for the scene repeated itself at the next exit. It seems that the ever-diligent Sheriff’s dept set up a parallel checkpoint there to catch anyone who u-turned away from the first checkpoint and tried to take another route into town. Now, this is a small suburban county, and hardly a DUI problem area. It all seemed a bit much, especially given the cost of mounting such an operation on an otherwise unremarkable Friday evening.

Then this morning, heading into San Francisco, I encountered my third police checkpoint right where the freeway dumps out onto city streets. This time the reason was a demonstration (and counter-demonstration — this is San Francisco!) against the Israeli – Lebanon war. Traffic from three directions was being funneled onto one street by overwhelmed SF cops. For anyone caught in the mess, the City felt as closed as London after the subway bombings. For me, it meant being late again because of having to run yet another cop-gauntlet.

Heading home, I reassured myself that all this was just a statistical aberration. Sure, I encountered more checkpoints in 24 hours than a Soviet citizen might have seen in a day in pre-1989 Moscow but it was just coincidence. Then I passed SF Intl Airport — and a big temporary sign announcing “vehicle inspection ahead.” As a forecaster, I know an indicator when I see one. We are indeed becoming a Checkpoint Nation. If we aren’t careful, today’s airport security lines, DUI gauntlets and demonstration roadblocks are going to mature into something most unwelcome. There will be one bright spot though; with all the practice, the police snoops will figure out how to shuffle us all through more quickly. Our civil rights may fade, but at least we will get to the concert on time.