At The American Prospet, staff writer Adam Serwer ponders Why We Are Angry at the TSA:
The amount of freedom Americans have handed over to their government in the years since the 9/11 attacks is difficult to convey. We’ve simply accepted the idea of the government secretly listening in on our phone calls and demanding private records from companies without warrants. Many shiver at the notion of trying suspected terrorists in civilian courts, and even at the idea of granting the accused legal representation. The last president of the United States brags openly about ordering people to be tortured, and the current one asserts the authority to kill American citizens he believes to be terrorists overseas.
But most of these measures are either invisible enough to put out of mind or occur outside of what most Americans can imagine happening to them. As long as it’s just Muslims being tortured and foreigners being detained indefinitely, the price we pay to feel secure seems all too abstract. The TSA’s new passenger-screening measures just happen to fall on the political and economic elites who can make their complaints heard. It’s not happening to those scary Arabs anymore. It’s happening to “us.”
This gets to some of the issues Kevin Drum raised a few days ago in his look at The Great Scanner Backlash:
I think it’s a pretty good sign of a country gone insane that this — TSA screeners occasionally viewing a vague outline of your body — is what’s finally driven everyone over the edge. Shoes, laptops, liquids, wands, special screenings, warrantless wiretaps, you name it. They annoyed us, but we accepted them. But this! Finally left and right can unite in outrage over government run wild.
Now Kevin said that in a dismissive way, while Adam doesn’t. For Kevin, the fact that we failed to check the attacks on civil liberties back in the Bush years means that it’s too late to draw the line now. But Serwer digs a little deeper. He notes that TSA has not done required cost-benefit analyses on the pornoscanners, nor on the gate gropes. It’s unclear that these scanners would even have detected the underwear bomber of a year ago, the threat they are being deployed in response to. “Once again, we’ve traded liberty for security without even having a good idea of how much security we’re really getting.”
The fact that we did this before hardly excuses the bad policy. It just reminds us how many bad choices we have to unmake. And Serwer makes a point that can’t be repeated often enough, as he chronicles the right-wing’s outrage at the pornoscanners and pat-downs:
conservatives bear a lot of blame for their current predicament. This comprehensive assault on individual freedom didn’t occur in a vacuum; it occurred because conservatives were successful in frightening Americans into choosing security over liberty every time the choice was before them, and because America’s elected officials take being blamed for a terrorist attack more seriously than their oath to protect the Constitution.
He and Drum are right, the current backlash reflects the fact that these incursions on our rights have finally started touching on elites. I dismiss any charge of hypocrisy on my own part by noting that I was a vigorous opponent of the warrantless wiretapping policies. This blog was a center of activism on that issue in Kansas, putting intense pressure on Senator Pat “memory pills” Roberts, back when he was chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. It may be coincidence, but Roberts left that committee the year after our efforts, and apparently still bears a grudge against yours truly. TfK’s record on Gitmo is clear, as is this blog’s opposition to torture (no matter what euphemism we give it). There are more than a few of us who have tried time and again to find a saner balance between counter-terrorism efforts and personal freedom, and it’s good to see that people are finally coming around.
But there’s something deeper here. The previous efforts were either modest and plausible (shoe removal, war on liquids) or arguably targeted at terrorists. While the warrantless wiretapping clearly violated the Constitution, and the Gitmo tribunals are absurd travesties (as the Supreme Court has held repeatedly), it is hard to convince people that either measure is not narrowly aimed at people who are plausibly suspected of terrorism. Which is why they should have gotten warrants for the wiretaps, and send the Gitmo prisoners through the established legal system. And while taking off shoes is a nuisance, I have no moral aversion to displaying my socks or bare feet. Nor do I mind refilling my water bottle, and my sources in DHS assure me that the limits are based on actual experiments with liquid explosives, and I understand why security screeners aren’t being asked to distinguish different sorts of liquids. It’s a hassle, but it makes a certain sense.
But this policy doesn’t make sense, it is deeply intrusive, and more importantly, it treats everyone like a criminal. The warrantless wiretapping and other unlawful NSA surveillance of US citizens did this to some degree, too, but the best evidence suggests that they were at least somewhat selective. The potential for abuse (the same abuses revealed by the Church committee in the 1970s) exists, but it appears that NSA was applying some sort of internal, non-judicial, unconstitutional (and therefore bogus) screening. But screening none the less. Everyone wasn’t treated like a terrorist – the lack of oversight simply meant that anyone might be treated like a terrorist, which is harder to get folks worked up over.
The virtual strip searches and actual pat-downs now performed by TSA are not selective. Everyone is treated like a terrorist. The pat-down is the same one given to a suspect being arrested, and the strip search is even more invasive. Every air passenger is presumed guilty. It’s absurd. It’s an inversion of core American principles. And it’s finally got a conversation started that we should have been having 9 years ago.