On Sunday morning, I got chosen to be patted down by the Transportation Security Administration at the New Orleans airport.
It was bad luck, really; the scanning machine that takes nude pictures of everyone was closed until 5 am, but the security line itself was open before then, so who knows how many terrorists slipped through with bombs hidden near their genitals before the scanner opened up. I was the third person the guard sent to go through the scanner (apparently al Qaeda has started recruiting Asian middle school girls, as those were the two that went before me). I’m something of a nevernude, so I chose the pat-down option over being scanned by the machine.
When the officer came to take me to the pat-down area, he said “this will only take a minute” (encouraging!) then “spread your legs” (slightly less encouraging!). He then proceeded to pat me down, very rough, paying particular attention to my groin (seriously, patting down the same area 3 times?). After he finished, the officer said “that wasn’t so bad, was it?” I took that as my opening to rant about how stupid the policy was; how any terrorist that wanted to discourage air travel could just suicide bomb the crowded security line; how it invaded privacy and took up way too much of everyone’s time-that it was just security theater. I did acknowledge that it was not this particular officer’s fault that this ridiculous policy was in place.
Then the officer asked me the simple question: “But don’t we want to be as safe as possible?” I was tempted to say “if you want to be as safe as possible, then you should perform strip and cavity searches on all the passengers.” I didn’t say that, because I didn’t want to arouse suspicion and be the victim of a strip or cavity search myself. Instead, I just said that there’s a limit to the price we should pay for a marginal increase in safety. David Foster Wallace made a similar point much more eloquently below, and I hope you’ll read his excerpt even if you don’t read my post:
“Are some things still worth dying for? Is the American idea* one such thing? Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”?* In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?
In still other words, what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?
Is this thought experiment monstrous? Would it be monstrous to refer to the 40,000-plus domestic highway deaths we accept each year because the mobility and autonomy of the car are evidently worth that high price? Is monstrousness why no serious public figure now will speak of the delusory trade-off of liberty for safety that Ben Franklin warned about more than 200 years ago? What exactly has changed between Franklin’s time and ours? Why now can we not have a serious national conversation about sacrifice, the inevitability of sacrifice—either of (a) some portion of safety or (b) some portion of the rights and protections that make the American idea so incalculably precious?
In the absence of such a conversation, can we trust our elected leaders to value and protect the American idea as they act to secure the homeland? What are the effects on the American idea of Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Patriot Acts I and II, warrantless surveillance, Executive Order 13233, corporate contractors performing military functions, the Military Commissions Act, NSPD 51, etc., etc.? Assume for a moment that some of these measures really have helped make our persons and property safer—are they worth it? Where and when was the public debate on whether they’re worth it? Was there no such debate because we’re not capable of having or demanding one? Why not? Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?”
1. Given the strict Gramm-Rudmanewque space limit here, let’s just please all agree that we generally know what this term connotes—an open society, consent of the governed, enumerated powers, Federalist 10, pluralism, due process, transparency … the whole democratic roil.
2. (This phrase is Lincoln’s, more or less)