Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Of Baggage and Badges

In its zeal to root out terrorists, the Transportation Security Administration expanded its pre-flight screenings of passengers into looking into their car registrations and employment information, combing through government and private databases for information. And it's using that data for domestic flight screenings, rather than simply international arrivals, as in the past.

While I understand the comparisons to the secret police of repressive regimes, and the way this feeds into the idea that the United States is becoming a police state, I think that chalking this up to "police state" behavior does the people who actually have to go through it a disservice. I know several people who are openly critical of the current status quo. All of them are extremely unlikely to ever have go through this, given the system as it stands. And I suspect I'm never going to have to go through it either, despite the fact that I have no problem with labeling such measures security theater. People of middle-eastern backgrounds and/or who have names similar to the names or aliases of "terrorists," however, are much more likely to have to suffer through this - not because the government of the United States is worried that they'll foment some sort of violent revolution or other uprising, but because the populace of the United States is worried that they'll explode a bomb or otherwise attempt to kill Americans (and perhaps themselves).

With sincere apologies to H. L. Mencken, “No one in this world, so far as I know—and I have searched the record for years, and employed agents to help me—has ever lost money by underestimating the willingness of the great masses of the plain people to throw those unlike them under the bus to protect their own safety or material comfort.”

Unlike police states, our government is unafraid of its citizens traveling from place to place in the name of a popular revolt. Our government is afraid of the majority of its citizens, who feel that they have something to lose, and are willing to put their boots on others people's necks to prevent themselves from loss, holding it responsible for the next attack on American soil. The sad fact of representative democracy is that perception is more important than truth. And the twin perceptions that we've somehow earned the absolute right to live lives that are free of things that (rationally or not) frighten us and that people like Abdulla Darrat are too scary to be afforded the freedoms that the rest of us take for granted mean that articles like this are greeted, in many quarters, with: "better that he be inconvenienced than I or a loved one be injured or killed." Many people agree with Former Attorney General John Ashcroft's assertion that, as  David Corn put it in Slate more than a decade ago: "Extremism in the name of civil liberties could lead to the destruction of the nation." Or, in the words of Justice Robert Jackson, "There is danger that, if the court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact." (Terminiello v. City of Chicago [1949])

But this is something to be expected. As Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it, this "is not because America is uniquely evil, so much as it is because America is the work of humans. One wishes we would dispense with the entire industry of 'shining cities' and admit to this." But as we have determined for ourselves that we are above such fears and anxieties, we have closed ourselves off from a frank look at our own frailties, preferring to view those threaten us as the evil other.

h/t: Jamie Crisalli.

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