November 14, 2010

Precautionary Fondling

I'm not fond of the idea of a TSA agent feeling me up the next time I try to board a plane. Not that I think that the agent is really looking forward to it, either. But is the threat of having a stranger grabbing your genitals enough to get Americans to finally address, in a serious way, the extent to which we're willing to sacrifice our dignity, privacy, and liberty, in exchange for the promise -- sure to be broken eventually -- of enhanced security.

But it should never come to something like this.

We fear terrorists on airplanes, and rightly so. But the response to ever-tightening and ever-more intrusive security measures is for terrorists to become ever smarter and more clever in the way they conceal weapons. And if we are looking at air travel security from the macro-level, the level of making policy, the truth of the matter is that some level of criminal activity cannot be prevented at all. At least one airline pilot is concerned that our response is one of panic and short-sightedness rather than resolve and intelligence, which he fears will not only result in a drag on air transport services, but less security in the services that are provided. He provides a very interesting historical perspective along the way.

This brings me also to an article linked in a comment here, a short thought experiment by the late, great David Foster Wallace. I have taken it as an article of faith that a nation as technologically advanced and wealthy as the United States does not need to choose between security and liberty; we ought to be smart and capable enough to have one without diminishing the other. Wallace asked, in effect, what if that is not ultimately true? What if in order to have safety we must diminish our own freedoms to the point that we no longer have the liberty that makes life in our society worth living? Would we choose to tolerate a certain level of terrorist and/or criminal-induced violence in order to preserve our liberties -- does this mean that there is a calculus of liberty versus life upon which we need to find an ideal balance point?

A disturbing thought indeed. A life enslaved is a life not worth living, for the most part, unless there is a possibility of liberation at some point in the future. But liberty obviously cannot be enjoyed if it is accompanied by fear, or more basically, if one is dead. Nor is the idea that other people are free much consolation to those who mourn the victims of a criminal (or terrorist, if you prefer) act.

But as I stated in a response to that comment, here I look to our Founding Fathers for inspiration. It's our choice to make, but this is what heroes and myths are for -- to help guide us make decisions in real life by providing role models. The United States' Founders were men who made a conscious decision to expend blood in the pursuit of liberty. They knew they were going to war, and that had they opted for peace, they would have continued to have life and (at least for most of them) economic prosperity. They chose a more risky path, one in which not only their livelihoods and wealth, but their safety and lives and those of their families and countrymen, were sufficiently at risk that they knew some lives would be lost. The chose to pay the price of blood in order to have freedom.

I'm pretty confident that none of them would have willingly submitted to a uniformed member of King George's government grabbing their wieners prior to boarding transport vessels so as to check for unauthorized satchels of gunpowder. I linked above to a guy who refused to submit to a genital grope or nude scan of his body and invited civil claims against him by the government for his doing so, and I have to think that George Washington would have admired him.

Do we today choose to pay the price of freedom in order to have -- what? A marginally increased level of protection against criminals? Worse, the illusion of a marginally increased level of protection against criminals? I don't want to pretend that there aren't security risks out there nor would I suggest that we abandon security screening entirely. But I also don't want to permit the security apparatus of the government to reach an unreasonable level of intrusiveness. There has to be an appropriate and effective middle ground, and by the time we've got passengers submitting to full frontal nudity views and genital pat-downs, we've crossed the line.

(Image from; hat tip to James Fallows)

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