The patrol took two days to get past the massive factory farm, with its sea of cows tightly crowded into steel rail-divided feed lots that stretched to the horizon, and, in the distance, black mountains of manure. Camping along its border that first night was a trial for all but the toughest soldiers, and the lieutenant had to order his men to eat their rations.
“Also, I know we’re all starting to run low on water, but don’t take any from sources around here,” he warned, settling down to eat his own meal. “It’s not just the runoff from the farm: there’s been a lot of mining in this area, too. Apparently, it’s rich in natural gas around here.”
“Yeah, I’m gonna have some natural gas after spending the night in this hellhole,” one of the men grumbled. Chess just concentrated on his food and tried to breathe through his mouth as much as possible.
The next day, just as the breezes started to bring some relief from the stench, they began to see signs of another village. Chess was surprised that, for the first time, he was not told to scout ahead. He was not told anything, actually, but, then, he was used to that: some of the soldiers in the group always seemed to know what was going on, but he never seemed to get more than the minimum necessary information.
They had not gone far in toward the village when one of the soldiers at the front of the patrol shouted, and Chess saw a flurry of movement through the sparse trees. When he came up with the rest of his group, he saw that they were holding a man – by his worn clothing, presumably an inhabitant of the nearby village – at gunpoint. The man was on his knees, shuddering violently, and there was blood at the side of his mouth.
“We didn’t steal the cows,” he was muttering. “Didn’t take those cows… didn’t steal…”
“I don’t care,” the lieutenant said gruffly, “about the damn cows.” He glanced up at the soldiers nearest to him and rolled his eyes, sighing loudly. “I want to know about the wizards.”
At this, Chess glanced furtively around the group. Had the lieutenant suddenly lost his mind? For a moment, he actually wondered if they were all playing the game that he used to play in the city… But no one was smiling or acting as if this was out of the ordinary. In fact, they all seemed to be watching intently.
When the man said nothing, the lieutenant slapped him hard across the face, and Chess flinched in surprise. But when the lieutenant grabbed a rifle from the nearest soldier and raised the butt end over the kneeling man’s face as if to strike him, Chess’s heart began to pound and his body tensed.
“They were here,” the man cried weakly. “They’re gone now.”
“When?” the lieutenant demanded.
“A few weeks ago… maybe more.” The villager sagged to a sitting position on the ground as the patrol, on a signal from the lieutenant, trooped past him and on toward the village.
Heart still pounding, Chess glanced down at the man as he went by and felt the white noise starting up in his brain. He wondered what, exactly, he had gotten into the middle of.
Just before they reached the first houses of the village, Chess’s group stopped and spread out in the clearing, rifles raised. A crowd of villagers came to meet them silently. Chess noted the assortment of ages in the group, from elderly to small children, all staring in his direction, and none of them looking happy. Chess shifted uncomfortably and wondered, again, what he was doing there.
The lieutenant then pulled out his link-phone, cleared his throat, and announced loudly, “By right of eminent domain, the property of this village is hereby condemned and seized by this state for public purpose.” He raised his voice to be heard over the beginnings of angry voices in the crowd. “As an officer of this state and the federal government, I ask that you now vacate this property peaceably. Fair compensation to be determined at a later date,” he finished more quietly and lowered the phone.
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Today the Court abandons this long-held, basic limitation on government power. Under the banner of economic development, all private property is now vulnerable to being taken and transferred to another private owner, so long as it might be upgraded -- i.e., given to an owner who will use it in a way that the legislature deems more beneficial to the public -- in the process.
Justice O'Connor’s Dissent to Kelo v. City of New London, decided 23 June 2005
The 2005 Supreme Court decision concerning taking property by eminent domain really bothered me when it happened. For once, I sided with the conservative side of the Court, which was, in this case, the dissenting opinion. I understand the idea of eminent domain seizures: my grandfather lost most of his farm to Interstate 295 when the six-lane highway was built around Providence, R.I.; however, I appreciate the need to put that highway in, and I used to travel it frequently. I also agree that governments sometimes need to override the interests of some of their citizens in order to benefit the vast majority of the population.
However, in this case, the local government required homeowners to vacate their properties so that a private company, Pfizer, could build a new facility there. The owners sued, lost, and the Supreme Court made it law that this could now be done. The dissenters on the Court wondered if “economic development” by a private company really falls under the Fifth Amendment idea of taking private property for public use.
One can only hope that future property seizures like this will have been thoughtfully considered by non-interested parties, but, of course, everyone can imagine some nightmare scenario where you have to move out of your house because it is about to become a strip-mall that will be partly owned by the cousin of a city councilman. Okay, it’s unlikely, but it now has a legal precedent.
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