TSA and the New "Americanism"

There is a vocal segment of the American political fringe that throws around words like “communism”, “socialism”, or “fascism” in describing the economic or social policies of the current Administration. Right or wrong, they’re entitled to their opinion, and this is not the place for a primer on these different political philosophies. (Disclaimer: I am an independent voter.)

However, to my knowledge, nobody from those fringe elements has drawn similar “-ism” comparisons about how the federal government, through the TSA, is mandating that American citizens give up some of their constitutional rights to support the “greater good” of the State when traveling by air.

Consider that, as Americans, we have the constitutional right to free speech but aren’t allowed to shout “fire” in a crowded movie theater. If we do, we get arrested for causing a panic, and the courts have upheld that restriction on free speech. We citizens accept that.

However, the government does not have legions of federal guards deployed at fixed checkpoints outside movie theaters taping patrons’ mouths shut to prevent someone from shouting “fire” or “bomb” once inside or issue billion-dollar orders for controversial machines that can probe the minds of theatergoers for references to “bomb” or “fire” or “boom!” before they hit the concession stand. Much to the dismay of the MPAA, there is no Pre-Crime Police at movie theaters.

But that’s just what TSA is becoming — albeit somewhat less melodramatically — in how it handles passenger screening.

I, and I suspect many others, have no problem with TSA searching for “bad stuff” on airline passengers — up to a point, for the world truly is a dangerous place. However, as I wrote on Monday, Americans need to accept a certain degree of risk in their lives, and not subject themselves to the misguided belief that everything “bad” can be discovered and prevented through the ongoing relinquishing of a few more individual rights to the State. Such practices transform a routine two hour business flight into a stressful all-day psychologically draining ordeal for passengers and present an image to the world not reflecting the America of opportunity and tolerance but rather an America of fear and angst.

I believe that the “wealth” of Americans is not found merely in money, goods, or services but also within our individual rights as its citizens.

As such, can we not interpret TSA’s current policies as another “redistribution of private wealth” away from individuals to the State under the justification of being necessary for the public welfare? At least that was how the recent bailouts of the American auto and banking industries were justified, weren’t they? Reflecting over the past decade, the redistribution of our individual wealth in the name of homeland security continues to be a truly bipartisan affair.

Many people complain about the “redistribution of wealth” in situations where generally they are powerless to do anything about it — but will they remain silent about the “redistribution of rights” in areas where they can do something about it? I don’t mean ranting in the convenient forums of the blogosphere, YouTube, by the water cooler, but rather in public and made-for-television displays of widespread protests that show American citizen-travellers taking a public stand against this arbitrary, unaccountable, and unnecessary redistribution of their constitutionally-provided wealth. The world should stand in awe as public cries of “Keep Your Hands off My Health Care” pale in comparison to the cries of “Don’t Touch (or Scan) My Junk.”

Since 9/11, we’ve seen the rise of a new political and social philosophy that favors the redistribution of increasing percentages of a citizen’s wealth — in the form of personal rights and hidden costs, both financial and psychological — to a national government for protecting the homeland. Looking back on the past ten years and seeing how the homeland security establishment requires increasing “redistributions” of our wealth to the government as it flails about trying to protect us against every possible new danger, I respectfully suggest that this emerging philosophy of nationalised fear isn’t “communism” or “socialism” but rather a modern, and unfortunate, definition of Americanism.

Clearly this will be a matter for the courts, or perhaps Congress, to decide. Unfortunately, I worry that these institutions will declare that submitting to invasive scanning, screening, and molestation procedures are another necessary redistribution of our individual American wealth to the State as it continues a futile attempt to protect its citizens from Anything Bad(tm). But absent significant and visible public outcry, this fear-based philosophy of the New Americanism will be ensconced and embedded further into law….until the next redistribution is required of us. In that case, as with the past ten years, the only folks who will lose are We The People.

Someone told me yesterday that the one good thing about TSA isn’t that it’s making America safer — rather, it’s reminding Americans that we have rights.

It’s time we exercised them.


RICHARD FORNO is a security researcher in the Washington, DC area.

Illustration by Anthony Freda.