By John Carr, oos Massachusetts Activist
“Trouble in transit, got through the roadblock, we blended with the crowd” — Talking Heads, “Life During Wartime”
Did you notice the Soviet attack on Massachusetts last winter?
It was snowing, as sometimes happens in February in New England, and the governor didn’t want people driving. (He is car-dependent but supports getting other people off the road. Most Americans feel the same way.)
In some states there is an established legal and administrative procedure for regulating winter travel. Gates at interchanges allow the DOT to quickly close snowy highways. Wide shoulders before passes allow drivers to pull over and put on chains. DOT staff have decided what road conditions call for what countermeasures.
Massachusetts law allows police to order all trucks off the road during a weather emergency. All trucks, not all traffic. Not good enough. The governor couldn’t get his way. Unless… is that a nuclear armed Tu-4 lurking in those storm clouds?
A Cold War era law allows the governor to rule by decree in case of emergency. Violating the governor’s orders is a crime. The law was passed to allow government to function in case the Korean War turned nuclear. But laws mean what they say, and the law says the governor can declare an emergency any time he likes and start inventing new crimes.
Governor Patrick declared snow in February to be a civil defense emergency. He declared driving to be a crime. All drivers were to be arrested.
During the storm, news coverage was about the heroic governor taking extraordinary measures to save the state.
After the storm we learned what his decree really meant. Police were temporarily free from the need to make up a pretext to stop a car.
Police had unrestricted authority to pull over anybody they wanted to pull over. If you had a bad attitude, alcohol on your breath, or a warrant, they would arrest you. Otherwise, the officer would say be careful out there and I hope you make it home safely. It wasn’t so much as a ban as it was a warning to blend in with the… not crowd, because most people did stay home, but not emptiness either.
The governor declares a lot of emergencies. They are rewarded with federal disaster aid. Every time he declares an emergency, he becomes a temporary dictator. We’re supposed to trust him to be a benevolent dictator. That isn’t any way to run a government.
Travel bans should be imposed based on previously established criteria and authorized by a specific law. They should not be declared ad hoc because the governor and police feel like flexing their muscles. We’re better off cleaning up a mess than setting a precedent that falling snow is legally the same as nuclear war.