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Like most people in the U.S., when President George W. Bush created the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), I didn’t see many problems with it.  We had just watched in horror as terrorists flew planes into three buildings and killed thousands of people.  They came from within and turned fully-fueled commercial aircraft into missiles.  To borrow a phrase I grew to loathe in grad school, it was a paradigm shift.

So when a college friend called me and said he was a crew leader with the contractors travelling the country transforming airport screening to federal government operations, I thought, ok, this is a big change but it’s for the better.  Surely our safety required bold new measures hitherto unimagined.   A bit frustrating, yes, but I didn’t see it as a big deal.  I don’t fly much, anyway.  I prefer to travel the country via open road and look forward to doing so until the feds and states completely cannibalize infrastructure funding to pay for social welfare programs (that process has already begun, by the way).

But full-body scans and patdowns have caused me to think about this issue with a new sense of frustration and concern about privacy and liberties.

Fellow Imaginative Conservatives Brittany Baldwin and Brad Birzer have stirred up a hornet’s nest around the interwebs pointing out the problematic (to put it mildly) aspects of the TSA’s new body scanners and too-close-for-comfort patdowns.  Brad has gone so far as to call for the TSA’s abolition, and I think his case has merit.  At the very least, it’s time for a vigorous public debate on the various domestic “security” measures and surveillance apparati that have become regular, even if unseen, parts of our lives for many years now.  The fact that one congressional leader is calling for airports to ditch the TSA is encouraging.

After 9/11, some creative folks in the hate-Bush-above-all crowd took old WWII-era propaganda poster styles and added a contemporary twist.  Recent events have reminded me that one of the more amusing aspects of studying history is how the present so often echoes the past.  Ecclesiastes reminds us there is nothing new under the sun.

walls ears hands

Until the TSA body scanner and groping debate, I tended to dismiss the whole “Ministry of Homeland Security” jabbing as pointless.  Creative and amusing, yes, but otherwise pointless.  I was willing to deal with new travel inconveniences and a bit less privacy because I believed that sacrifice purchased for us a necessary level of security we would not have otherwise.  But how far is too far?

If you haven’t done so already, I suggest you read The Washington Posts’ series of stories called “Top Secret America.”  Consider that:

  • Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.
  • An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.
  • In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings – about 17 million square feet of space.
  • Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.
  • Analysts who make sense of documents and conversations obtained by foreign and domestic spying share their judgment by publishing 50,000 intelligence reports each year – a volume so large that many are routinely ignored.

Those last two points reinforce what I’ve come to believe after many years of studying government—that the Orwellian conspiracy theories propagated by John Birchers and the like are bunk not because our government isn’t interested in such control, but because it’s far too incompetent to pull it off.  Remember that it was Walmart, not FEMA, that was first to get food and water to Katrina victims in Louisiana.

But bloated and bungling doesn’t mean benign.

To be sure, there are aspects of government growth and intrusion that frighten me more than the massive industrial-surveillance complex that has sprouted up in the last ten years, and more that TSA’s desire to see and touch under my clothes.  The biggest threats to our Republic are not necessarily the ones we see, hear, or even think about daily.  But we’ve long since been at a point where it’s time for conservatives to stand up and question the growth of leviathan that began under a Republican president and with a Republican congress.

Readers of The Imaginative Conservative should ponder some important questions.  Are we truly safer because of the government’s measures?   At what point do we say “enough” to intrusion and surveillance?    If we don’t draw the line somewhere, what’s next?

Liberty erodes slowly, like embankments on the seashore.   We can joke about WWII propaganda posters that said “the walls have ears.”  But now the walls have ears and hands.  It’s not so funny anymore.

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3 replies to this post
  1. "Bloated and bungling does not mean benign," writes the good Mr Barnes. Good or bad intentions may not be as big a threat as something else. About 10 years ago, the BBC ran a fascinating documentary about new researches into the Nazi rule of a middling town in Germany. The Nazi administrators, largely incompetent bureaucrats, killed multitudes with the help of malicious neighbours. A chap with a candy-shop, for example, wanted rid of his Jewish competitor and had him sent to the death camps. A wicked (and now elderly) lady wrote letter after letter denouncing a school teacher as an alleged lesbian and communist and the pencil-pushers, eventually needing more names on a monthly list, shrugged and sent the innocent soul to the gas-chambers.

    Scarcely anyone in interned in Guantanamo, one of the larger American gulags, had anything to do with Islamist terrorism. As I predicted in my book five or six years ago, American officials who knew neither local languages nor local politics were given something like quotas (think traffic cops), crooked third-world officials were given something like bribes, and innocent men – and children – were kidnapped and in some cases tortured into madness. The expressions of Hannah Arendt, Orwell and film-maker Terry Gilliam (see 'Brazil') show what uncontrolled systems can do to even some decent people staffing them. When will TSA officials be given quotas (if they haven't them already)?

    Stephen Masty

  2. Stephen,

    Funny that you mention "Brazil," because were I to envision the West's dystopian future, it would look a lot more like Gilliam's nightmare than Orwell's. The scene where government repair men are unable to fix the ceiling hole cut by police because "they've gone back to metric without telling us" is both hilarious and telling.

    Still, as you rightly point out, we ought not underestimate the danger incompetent bureaucrats pose to life and liberty at home and abroad. History makes that clear.

  3. One must also recognize that the "Security-Industrial Complex" is motivated to maximize the fear factor. Because the more fearful Americans are, the more money they make.

    And like their voracious, yet grossly inefficient cousin, the Military-Industrial Complex, the Security-Industrial Complex can create low probability scenarios till the cows come home. All leading to the budget busting and civil rights busting claim that "too much is never enough".

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