Minority Report

Precrime in Today’s World

Logo of the Department of Precrime

In the 2002 film Minority Report by Stephen Spielberg, a governmental agency known as Precrime, operating in Washington, D. C., arrests people for murders they will allegedly commit in the future.  This dystopian development is one that many find chilling.  But, could something like this sort of thing already be happening in our world today?  For fun, let us see if we can find some real-world examples that bear resemblance to Precrime, shall we?

According to an article by Sameer P. Sarkar, MD and Gwen Adshead, MRCPsych, published in The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law in 2002,

In 2002 things are no better on this [the European] side of the Atlantic.  The British Government has a new mental health bill in parliament that justifies detention solely on the grounds of perceived risk.  The possible wrong (and harm) that is done by involuntary detention is justified by harm avoidance, not by its benefit to persons who have mental disorders.  Of course, it can be argued that it is good for such persons not to be violent toward other people; thus, stopping them before they commit violence is a benefit to them.  However, this is not an argument that we normally apply to other people (pp. 568–569).

The authors believe this is a strong cause for alarm, for if the state can use “risk-assessment data” to justify detaining innocent people who might or might not someday in the unknown future commit an act of violence, why would the state necessarily limit its preemtive interventions to those solely possessing mental disorders?

Who will be on the next preventive-detention list?  Here is another link with the film: perceived danger may be a product of our dreams, fantasies, and other types of less rational thought.  In 2054, the precog’s dreams of violence have some basis in reality, but in 2002, the content of our dreams of violence are likely to be based on what we most fear, and this may or may not be real.  In the United States in the 1940s, fear of Japanese people led to preventive detention for innocent citizens.  At the same time in Britain, German Jews fleeing Hitler were also detained on the grounds that they were German, and therefore possible spies—a horribly ironic twist to their predicament.  At present, there are talks about detaining people of a particular ethnicity on the grounds that they may be terrorists.  The reasoning owes more to Alice in Wonderland than the risk-assessment literature.  Men of one persuasion committed a terrorist act; you are a man of that persuasion; therefore you are more likely than others to…do what?  Kill randomly?  Blow up buildings?  Psychologists call this fundamental attribution error (pp. 569–570).

So, what’s the real likelihood that mentally stable people will be arrested on the supposition that they might commit some crime?  Could this actually happen?

In fact, it does.  As reported by Radley Balko of Reason magazine in the June 2010 issue, five police agencies, working together, targeted “39-year-old Oregonian David Pyles early on the morning of March 8,” 2010.  According to a press release put out by the Medford, Oregon, police department, the subject was

“very disgruntled,” and had recently purchased several firearms.  “Local Law Enforcement agencies were extremely concerned that the subject was planning retaliation against his employers,” the release said.  Fortunately, Pyles “voluntarily” turned himself over to police custody, and the legally purchased firearms “were seized for safekeeping.”

A government employee,
ready to commit violence

As Balko explains, this “voluntary” exchange

involved two SWAT teams, police officers from Medford and nearby Roseburg, sheriff s deputies from Jackson and Douglas counties, and the Oregon State Police.  Oregon State Police Sgt. Jeff Proulx explained to South Oregon’s Mail Tribune why the operation was such a success:  “Instead of being reactive, we took a proactive approach.”

There’s just one problem:  David Pyles hadn’t committed any crime, nor was he suspected of having committed one.  The police never obtained a warrant for either search or arrest.  They never consulted with a judge or mental health professional before sending out the military-style tactical teams to take Pyle in.

“They woke me up with a phone call at about 5:50 in the morning,” Pyles told me in a phone interview Friday.  “I looked out the window and saw the SWAT team pointing their guns at my house.  The officer on the phone told me to turn myself in.  I told them I would, on three conditions:  I would not be handcuffed.  I would not be taken off my property.  And I would not be forced to get a mental health evaluation.  He agreed.  The second I stepped outside, they jumped me.  Then they handcuffed me, took me off my property, and took me to get a mental health evaluation.”

And what did this mental health evaluation indicate about the “very disgruntled” and “potentially volatile male subject”?  He had a clean bill of mental health.  That’s right, an innocent man was denied due process and forced by a violent institution off of his property, despite there being nothing wrong with him.  According to criminal defence attorney James Leuenberger, “In my opinion, the apprehension of David Pyles was a violation of Oregon’s kidnapping laws.”  Leuenberger is right.  But will Pyles’s criminal assailants be arrested, or even lose their jobs?  Unlikely, because the state pretends that crimes aren’t crimes when it commits them.  As for Pyles himself, he makes this respectful observation:  “For me, this is about civil rights.  This seems like something the NRA and the ACLU can agree on.”

The Reason article offers an intriguing critique:

At root behind this case and others like it is our na´ve, hopeful, and sometimes even dangerous belief that every horrible shooting spree or lone-wolf act of terrorism can be prevented.  We seem unable to accept the idea that bad people will occasionally do bad things.  Every new mass shooting spurs an urge to assign blame beyond the shooter:  What political ideology inspired him?  Who missed the “warning signs,” and why wasn’t he apprehended ahead of time?  Gun retailers are scrutinized and vilified, even when they’ve complied with the law.  In ensuing days and weeks, politicians mull new laws, often both ineffective and constricting on our liberty.

Balko hits the nail on the head.  Unfortunately, some people do do bad things from time to time, horrible things that we should look upon with apprehension.  But this doesn't mean the powers that be should become even more heavy handed, initiating what amounts to a preemtive attack against people who have done no harm in the hope that some theoretical future harm might be mitigated.  For, in sanctioning this sort of “attack now, ask questions later” policy, the powers that be will invariably infringe upon the rights of the very same people whose rights the state is allegedly instituted to protect.

The Ludwig von Mises Institute, in reviewing Minority Report, ties the prevailing statist ideal of preemtive intervention back into the lessons of the film:

More and more the State makes crimes of actions that don’t cause any harm, but might.  Drunk driving, an improper paperwork trail for a large transfer of money, violation of any of a multitude of gun purchasing regulations.  The point is no longer merely to punish the wrongdoer, but to prevent the crime from happening in the first place.  What is the logical culmination of this?  Minority Report shows us in a movie based on a story by sci-fi author Philip K. Dick (who also inspired Bladerunner and Total Recall).  In 2054, Washington D.C. has gone from being the murder capital of the nation to having no murders at all.  This is due to the Department of Pre-Crime which, with the help of 3 “pre-cogs”, foresees murders before they occur and arrests the predicted murderer before he can actually do the deed.

The movie brilliantly explores issues of predestination and free will while demonstrating the injustice of a “justice” system that punishes not for actual crimes, but for ones that are yet to be committed…the ultimate “tradeoff” of liberty for security.

Thus, the problem is not limited merely to the criminal manner in which the employees of the state calling itself Ohio treated Mr. Pyles on the morning of March eighth—the problem is systemic.  The state routinely infringes upon the natural, inalienable rights of innocent individuals, including the nonviolent pothead, the nonviolent gambler, the nonviolent prostitute, the nonviolent gun enthusiast, &c.  Its apologists try to defend it using all sorts of utilitarian rhetoric, as though utilitarian rhetoric somehow washes away natural rights.

Thus, should we be surprised when Independent Media Center reports that the NYPD arrested 1,800 suspected antiwar protestors in August of 2004 despite them having committed no crime, on the grounds that “we all know that eventually you guys were going to do something”?  Or, by the same token, when The New York Times reports that police in New Orleans were seizing the firearms of New Orleans civilians?  Or how about when The Huffington Post reveals that New York City has erected a sort-of Precrime database?  Or, perhaps most frightening of all, when The New York Times reports that U.S. president Barack Obama has begun considering the possibility of establishing “a ‘preventive detention’ system that would establish a legal basis for the United States to incarcerate terrorism suspects who are deemed a threat to national security but cannot be tried”?

Gorki Aguila arrested for
“pre-crime social dangerousness”

And this phenomenon is not limited simply to these united states.  In Cuba, for example, one can be literally arrested for “pre-crime social dangerousness.”  In fact, according to the Miami Herald, this happened to Gorki Aguila, leader of an underground Cuban rock band whose lyrics “regularly denounce[] the government.”

None of this is to imply that there is some sort of “conspiracy” to bring about a Department of Precrime as depicted in the movie.  Given our technological limits, that wouldn’t likely be possible anyway, and certainly not in our lifetimes.  Nor do I wish to imply that there is anything wrong with the advancement of technology itself.  To be clear, I do not think the problem is intrinsic with the growth of new technology; technology is neither inherently good nor bad, and I certainly hope that none walk away from this film with a growing sense of technophobia.  The problem obviously isn’t with conspiring men in smoke-filled rooms, but nor is it with the technology; rather, it’s with big government and the statist ideology that holds that it is legitimate for a person or group of persons to rule over another person or group of persons.  Thus, I have no problem with some store owner deciding to place a camera in front of her shop.  To each her own.  I do have a problem with it, however, when the state places cameras on street corners because (1) it funds it surveillance through forced expropriation (which it calls “taxation”) and because (2) it routinely considers nonviolent activities (which might be caught on its cameras) to be something it should violently suppress.  Just like that great American individualist Henry David Thoreau, I heartily accept the motto, “That government is best which governs least.”