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The Independent Institute
Commentary

Traveling Sheep


The Transportation Security Administration has changed the rules of its airport-security system just in time to create extra hassle for the millions of busy holiday travelers. More travelers will be subjected to random pat-downs. Screeners will routinely grope the thighs of attractive women. Security officers, now trained in "behavior recognition," will identify travelers who seem nervous (imagine that, somebody running the airport-security gauntlet and appearing nervous) and pull them aside for bonus hassling.

On the plus side, however, passengers will now be allowed to bring onboard small scissors and tools such as screwdrivers and wrenches—unless Senator Charles E. Schumer and Representative Edward J. Markey can intervene successfully by gaining passage of a bill to disallow this rule change. Congress, ever on the ball, plans to hold a committee hearing on this vital issue as soon as possible.

All of this sound and fury signifies . . . not exactly nothing, yet hardly what it purports to signify. Most important, it has nothing much to do with actual security. It's mainly for show, to demonstrate that the government is dedicated to protecting us against terrorists. Thank God for the government's protection. Why, without it, somebody might destroy the Twin Towers or crash a large, fuel-laden aircraft into the Pentagon in broad daylight. Oops, never mind. The government steadfastly maintains the view expressed in immortal words of General "Buck" Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove, "Well, ahh, I don't think it's quite fair to condemn a whole program because of a single slipup."

Although I myself do not possess a natural criminal mind—indeed, I have advanced to the verge of eligibility for an old-age pension from Social Security without committing any reported assaults, batteries, robberies, thefts, rapes, murders, or DWI offenses—I can conceive of a variety of ways in which a few determined adults might easily commandeer or destroy a commercial aircraft or seriously disrupt the operation of the air-travel industry. Individuals such as those who pulled off the hijackings of 9/11, having both the requisite determination and the resourceful criminal mind, surely can concoct plans even better than mine.

If airplanes have not been hijacked and air travel has not been substantially disrupted (except by the government's security measures) during the past four years, it is probably because nobody really tried very hard to achieve these objectives. If someone had made a serious attempt, he almost certainly would have succeeded. (Forget that moron, the shoe bomber; besides, even he was thwarted only by the passengers' quick reactions.) Of course, one thing such a determined malefactor would not have tried was a plan that exposed his efforts to discovery or interruption by the airport security system. The generals, it is said, always prepare for the last war. Likewise, the TSA prepares to prevent the last hijacking. Or pretends to do so.

In view of what a farce the whole degrading, obnoxious, contemptible, outrageous system actually is, one has to wonder why it was put in place to begin with and why it remains in place years later in more or less its initial form. Perhaps we can find a clue in the recent statement of BWI Airport spokesman Jonathan Dean: "The traveling public is accustomed to security protocols and procedures." Therefore, do not worry about the recent amendments to the system: "The new actual changes aren't dramatic."

Which is to say, the system remains much as it was before: a degrading, obnoxious, contemptible, outrageous farce. It's also a blatant violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, although the government's lap-dog judges say otherwise. I know that I am not the only person in America who looks at this thuggery as I do. So what's going on?

Two years ago, in an assessment of the new federal airport-security arrangements, I noted that it "routinely abases and humiliates the entire population, rendering us docile and compliant and thereby preparing us to play our assigned role in the Police State that the Bush administration has been building relentlessly." In the light of what I have observed since making that observation, I cannot help but believe now that I was barking up the right tree then.

Strange as it might seem, most people get used to being treated as criminals or inmates in a concentration camp. Americans are no exception. Keep beating them down, and eventually you will produce a thoroughly cowed and compliant herd, a mass of pliant raw material in the hands of their political masters, perfectly willing to sacrifice their dignity rather than irritate an airport-security thug and be made to miss a flight. And heaven forbid that they write their congressional representative to complain. Such impudence might get them placed on some black list at the TSA or even at the FBI. Best to keep quiet, stay in line, act as they are ordered to act. Even making jokes, an airport sign I saw in Houston warned, might result in your arrest; so nobody jokes.

Our rulers may not be alchemists, able to turn base metal into gold, but they know how to turn humans into sheep. Well might we ask about this remarkable trick; cui bono?


Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at The Independent Institute and Editor at Large of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, and the University of Economics, Prague. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University, and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation. He is the author of many books, including Depression, War, and Cold War.

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