Few issues, few demands to balance legitimate competing concerns, better illustrate both the subtlety of the challenges we face, and the dysfunctionality of displacing careful and thorough analyses with ideological scripts. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, on Meet the Press, just repeated the familiar right-wing refrain, “why are they more worried about the terrorists rights than about the rights of innocent travelers?” Some on the left (in an echo of Tea Party Liberty Idolatry) like to repeat the refrain, “those who trade liberty for security deserve neither.” Jindal also suggested that searching grandmothers and children at airport security is unnecessary, because they’re not the terrorists. Some on the left, in one of those all-too-common inter-ideological agreements on an oversimplification, insist that such measures are not about security at all, but rather about the exercise of government control and subjugation. (Vincent Carroll echoed that sentiment as applied to what he considers the government assault on Free Speech, as illustrated by, for instance, the opposition to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which protects corporate political speech from legislative restraints: see Freedom & Coherence).
It’s all Bullshit. Really.
Jindal’s refrain about Democrats’ overzealous defense of terrorists’ rights has been repeated in various contexts throughout American history, and has repeatedly been discredited. The very foundation of our system of justice is that people are presumed innocent until proven guilty. The constant allusion to the presumption of guilt that vests at the moment of being suspected (it is terrorists‘ rights that are being protected, rather than people suspected of terrorism) is as un-American as it gets. It was used to justify Gitmo, which every person I know of who actually visited Gitmo and talked with detainees there recognized held many, many completely innocent people.
The fact is, that despite our procedural bias in favor of protecting the rights of the innocent, we put thousands or tens of thousands of innocent people in jail every year, and some unknown number on Death Row. Violations of civil rights, including excessive violence by police against people who have committed the most minor of infractions, is a constant and real concern. Those on the right who are implicit advocates of decreasing our vigilance against those natural social forces that tend toward a police-state are doing this country an enormous disservice. As Sinclair Lewis said, “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross” (there is some debate about the attribution: http://zalandria.wordpress.com/2007/01/13/sinclair-lewis-how-fascism-will-come-to-america-1935/).
On the other hand, the notion that we don’t have to compromise any of what we consider to be the full extent of our liberties and rights to the concerns of mutual security is equally absurd (sorry, folks). The very existence of any system of law enforcement is an intrusion on personal liberty. That’s what laws are: An intrusion on personal liberty. And enforcing them is, inherently, an invasion of privacy, including, to some extent, of the innocent. The vast majority of Americans prefer the slight invasion of privacy associated with airport security measures (at least prior to the implementation of the new, more intrusive measures) than the increased risk of violent death associated with their absence. I do, especially when my seven-year-old daughter is traveling with me.
The issue is not settled by some broad-brushstroke platitude on one side or the other, but rather by understanding: 1) the competing values; 2) the dangers of overemphasis of one or the other of those values; and 3) the cognitive and emotional biases that may play into exaggerating one or the other of those values (e.g., fear of criminal violence playing into an exaggerated predisposition to trade rights for security, or fear of government oppression playing into an exaggerated predisposition to trade security for rights). As in all matters, we are challenged to mobilize the best analyses, with all relevant information in play, and make the best decisions we can on that basis, in service to our values and to human welfare, all things considered.
Both Jindall, and some on the left who are indignant over TSA intrusiveness (in a Facebook thread on a post of the video of the little girl screaming “don’t touch me!” while being physically searched), invoke the refrain that small children and old ladies aren’t the terrorists. The fact is, that the terrorists are adaptable, and that there are those in all demographic categories who can be recruited, knowingly or unknowingly, willingly or unwillingly, to carry explosives or other instruments of terrorism across airport security. Without a doubt, the TSA procedures can be better designed, and their treatment of children can be more sensitive to the particular needs involved (i.e., have TSA employees trained in working with children, using techniques that put them at ease). But those current imperfections are not some kind of major scandal. They’re just current imperfections, that we should insist upon refining.
The message is the same message that permeates all of my posts: Don’t reduce the challenges of self-governance to ideological refrains and broad-brushstroke platitudes. Avoid precipitous conclusions driven by political-emotional predispositions. Do the analysis, and recognize that we live in a complex and subtle world, that demands more of us than ideological purity and self-righteous indignation when the presumptions of that purity are violated. The challenge of self-governance is not a trivial one. Let’s stop trivializing it.