Secure Persons and Privacy

The Department of Homeland Security wants to expand invasive search procedures beyond airports to other transportation hubs. They’ve already launched pilot programs at bus depots in Tampa and elsewhere.

Like anybody else, I want to be as safe as I can reasonably expect. I certainly don’t want my loved ones to suffer a terrorist attack. But I don’t believe that sacrificing liberty makes anyone safer. Compare the TSA-style measures’ effectiveness in thwarting terrorist plots to the effectiveness of good intelligence, thorough investigation, and the initiative of intended victims.

Government priorities mean that security checkpoints are not mainly looking out for bombs or terrorists. Checkpoint personnel are looking for people with immigration violations, drugs the government doesn’t approve of, weapons carried without government approval, and whatever else will boost arrest stats and revenue. The traveler is confronted by militarized authoritarians who aren’t totally focused on passenger safety.

Security could function on an amicable relationship, since the peaceable traveler and security officer should both be concerned with the safety of the transportation system. But police state procedures foster an antagonistic relationship as the traveler worries about what he might have forgotten to take out of his bag and the officer expects total submission from the traveler he’s investigating. The harm done to communication and trust leaves us more vulnerable to attack. Security from unreasonable searches goes hand in hand with security from attackers.

If terrorists want to take away our freedom, the government is certainly helping them get what they want. But terrorism is primarily a (completely immoral) response to government policies. People don’t like the US government telling them what to do, supporting regimes that oppress them, or killing civilians while trying to stamp out resistance. The security state apparatus is a government solution to a problem that government helped create in the first place. Not surprisingly, the government answer is to deploy more force and insist on more control over the public. If you’re a hammer, everyone else looks like nails.

It should be clear that the loss of freedom doesn’t really make us safer. But we pay for the security state in other ways too. People are made late, travel time is increased and inconvenience leads to marginally less travel. As a result the economy becomes less dynamic. If people avoid public transportation there will be more highway traffic and more car accidents. Increased spending on fuel and road repair comes at the expense of things people would otherwise desire more.

But someone benefits. President Eisenhower warned that the influence of the military-industrial complex could be disastrous to liberty if not held in check by an aware and knowledgeable citizenry. Today Americans suffer under that influence, expanded into a broader security-industrial complex. There’s big money in scanners, prisons, and tools for low-level security personnel. Bureaucrats often view expansion of their department as a key for career advancement. Not surprisingly, a company that manufactures body image scanners invested heavily in lobbying efforts. It looks like their investments are paying off, and Americans are footing the bill. This does not stimulate the economy. It instead forcibly shifts spending away from the productive goods and services of the voluntary sector into the pockets of those favored by the state.

When someone asks how much liberty you’re willing to trade for security, you should ask why they assume there is a tradeoff. What we’re purchasing with our liberty, privacy and wealth is not security. It is a society of submission. True security is founded on liberty at home and abroad.

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