For more level-headed lives

Americans, forever on their guard against the overbearing government, need to take a closer look at what is happening in the private sector.

The public here was dismayed to learn that several schoolchildren had been strip-searched on a recent visit to a prison. Americans are also doing a slow burn over the use of cameras by the police to control speeding and running red lights. But so far, there has been no outcry about a corporate drive to market liquor to children.

Hang the strip-searchers?

On July 3, the FBI turned over to the Justice Department the results of its investigation of a "crime" that arguably should not have been subject to such an inquiry in the first place. It concerns corrections officers who strip-searched up to nine middle-school students in Washington, D.C., and whether the students' civil rights were violated. Also under scrutiny are the teachers who arranged the jail visit as part of a program to show misbehaving pupils what it would be like to end up in prison.

A basic fact about this case stands out: Exposing students to jarring experiences can be an effective educational tool. But, in retrospect, the strip-searches were a grievous error, because they made the real world a bit too real.

But what about the overreaction? No wonder educators shy away from trying anything that's not completely routine. Clearer guidelines for such field trips should be issued. But the episode was not worth turning into a federal case, literally. If such an outing (without strip-searches) can prevent just one child from committing crimes, such trips are more than justified.

Cameras, no; cops, yes?

If you do not like the cameras that are increasingly replacing police officers at stop lights and on highways, Rep. Dick Armey (R) of Texas is your man. He sees these cameras as a "step toward a Big Brother surveillance state," a spy program "where the government monitors the coming and going of its citizens," and a violation of our right to privacy.

Mr. Armey has company. Aside from the American Civil Liberties Union, several lawyers just filed a class-action suit against the City of San Diego for the use of such cameras.

Actually, these cameras are much less intrusive and more objective than cops. They are carefully aimed (I know - my wife just got caught) at the license plate and not the interior of the car. There is no way of telling who was accompanying the driver or anything else. Better, the cameras are oblivious to the driver's race and how obsequious - or flirtatious - he or she is.

Moreover, none of our rights - even the most sacred, free speech - are absolute. Lawmakers and the courts often weigh how much public good is achieved versus how large the intrusion into privacy.

Speeding is still a major killer of Americans, slaying nearly as many per year as the Vietnam War in its worst 12 months. (Also, cameras cost the taxpayers only a fraction of what cops do.) In contrast, the intrusion by these cameras is quite small. Great public service with minimal intrusion is the best definition of reasonable searches, fully blessed by the Constitution.

'Alcopops' for kiddies?

If your children are drinking "hard lemonade," have a closer look at the label or just sniff the bottle. The liquor industry, like tobacco producers, is keen to increase its sales.

Although industry officials insist they aren't aiming their new products at youngsters, the flavors and packaging suggest that, just possibly, they have children in the back of their minds.

Mike's Hard Lemonade, one brand name among several that include Smirnoff Ice and Hooper's Hootch, is a malted lemonade beverage that tastes exactly like the sweet pops children love. And the labels on the packages include colors and designs found on popular soft drinks. Others look like Kool-Aid. Indeed, a poll released in May by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) found that these products appeal significantly more to teens than to adults. The Beer Institute does not deny the attraction of these "malternatives" to minors. It stated that "underage drinking is a societal and family issue, not an advertising issue."

In 1997, some liquor producers rolled out similar products, referred to as "training wheels," after alcohol-laced ice cream and popsicles found their way into the bins frequented by children in shops in the United Kingdom rather than in bins where booze is usually kept. In Britain, alcohol has even been included in milk products marketed under names such as Moo and Super Milch. Some parents have found children as young as 4 falling ill from them.

"I wonder when they will bring out a bottle with a teat on it," said Eric Appleby, director of the London-based Alcohol Concern. In Canada, it is reported that such products have been the most successful new beverage products launched in a decade.

At the time, a coalition of child advocates, local politicians, and other activists in the United States protested so much that the industry relented. McKenzie River Corp., brewer of St. Ides Malt Liquor and maker of the Freeze and Squeeze, for instance, announced that it would remove the offending pops from shelves. But now we face another campaign to market basically the same merchandise, according to CSPI.

Maybe if our officials can spend less time scrutinizing public schools and traffic cameras, and pay closer attention to what the liquor industry is doing, our children will have safer summers and more level-headed lives.

Amitai Etzioni is the author of 'The Limits of Privacy' (Basic Books, 1999) and teaches at George Washington University.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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