Sunday, July 15, 2007

TSA, Über Alles!

Tibor R. Machan

Lord Acton’s famous insight, that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” seems to apply to the behavior of nearly all those security personnel at airports across the world. No doubt, exceptions can be found because some of those holding these jobs are determined, committed to acting in a civilized manner and resist the all too easily indulged temptation to wield needless power over airline passengers. But going by my and many of my fellow very frequent flyer friends’ experiences, all too many security personnel yield to the power-over-others temptation. And they aren’t alone—I have noticed this even on the part of some, the much fewer, security guards at the main entrances of gated communities.

The power involved here is a specific sort—the legal authority to make others act as one wants them to act quite apart from what is necessary. Immediately once can differentiate such power form what professionals—doctors, auto-mechanics, professors or personal trainers—exert. Theses are avoidable or at least non-arbitrary and also decentralized, often in competition with one another. So professional power is mostly restrained, confined to whatever is required to properly carry on with the profession. The dentist makes the patient do mostly what is needed to keep the teeth healthy, the coach to keep the team in shape, etc.

The power deployed by security officials and other bureaucrats is not so restrained. There is nowhere else to go for what they provide and so what one is ordered to do is often quite arbitrary, even deliberately so (maybe to drive home the need to obey instead of to voluntarily cooperate). In some regions of officialdom due process is in place but at airport check points such retrain on power is largely missing. “Go there, stand here, open your coat, take off your shoes, discard those plastic bottles, etc.” and there is rarely any civility in the issuing of these commands.

An example of this occurs in how often different officials impose different rules—“Yes” to gels at one gate, “No” to them at another. Sometimes the rules are changed from one moment to the next: “Go pour out half of your shampoo,” but then once you have, “Well, we will not allow any of it.” All this is done by the very same official, just after he or she sends you out to return with the half filled bottle. If you protest, you risk being detained and missing your flight, even be dragged off to be searched and questioned.

While the rules are mostly uniform and predictable—so much so that they are easily circumvented—often they are very unevenly applied, depending on the mood of the officials. Here is where the arbitrariness becomes so evident! Over a long trip, with many stops and the need to re-board after a stop-over, the arbitrariness of the procedures is blatant.

One response to these beefs is that arbitrariness itself is a tactic for combating terrorism or, indeed, other crime. It is supposed to be a device for keeping those at bay who attempt to breach security. If the policies are uniform and predictable, they become ineffective.

First, they are ineffective anyway—I personal took aboard the very stuff the security people told me to dump by simply putting them in my pockets! (I was going away for 8 weeks and wasn’t about to comply with idiotic rules that would deprive me of my special shampoo or hair cream!) More importantly, none of that is an excuse for abandoning the rule of law. If that principle makes security measures difficult to apply, them’s the breaks! The alternative of unconstrained power by officials is unacceptable to free men and women, period. That is especially so when airport security is itself mostly moot—closing the barn door after the horses have split! Such power by anyone is an affront to the principles of a free society, so instead of unleashing it upon us all, officials need to work without violating them.

Some may believe this to be a small price for—well, for what, exactly? When we travel by bus or train or on the road, it seems to be quite OK to live without these measures and the accompanying arbitrariness of officialdom. Why then at airports?

As my friend Mike said, “Because these folks can get away with it pretty much unopposed.” And that in the country that used to be called the leader of the free world! And now, of course, all the rest as well. Welcome to George Orwell’s world!

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