July 10, 2004

"Let's roll"

Law professors Michael Froomkin and Brian Leiter link to examples of small-minded harrassment in the name of "homeland security."

Every time I read stories like this, I'm reminded of Todd Beamer's more effective approach to security: "Let's roll." Beamer, Mark Bingham, Tom Burnett, and their fellow passengers and crew who fought the terrorists for control of Flight 93 are heroes. But they're more than just heroes, they're also teachers. It's too bad some of the smallish officials and bureaucrats who see homeland security as an excuse to abuse their authority haven't been paying attention in class.

The heroes of Flight 93 taught us how strong America really is. Within minutes of discovering that the old rules of thumb for dealing with hijackers were not going to be effective any longer, they rewrote the rule book. They demonstrated that the American people are not like a flock of sheep. They're more like bears. Independent, inclined to keep to themselves, sometimes a little frumpy and self-absorbed, but deadly when attacked.

If the analogy seems strained, it might be because the government and the media have saturated us with the sheep analogy for so long. According to the standard line out of Washington, the terrorist threat calls for "strength," not so much from everyday American citizens, as exemplified by the passengers and crew of Flight 93, but from the military and police apparatus assigned to protect the passive public flock from terrorist wolves. When Tom Ridge announces his color alerts, and John Ashcroft warns of "nonspecific intelligence" suggesting the possibility of another attack, the advice from our government is always the same. "We, the Authorities, are on the case. Defer to us when we walk among you. Don't take pictures of those public buildings. Submit to our lordly displays of officiousness, for we are strong, and we are here to protect you." Not enough talk of "strength" these days refers to the kind of strength that was most effective against the terrorists on 9-11, namely, the strength of citizens like Todd Beamer.

Does this mean there is no role for the military, or for the police, or for the courageous people who make it their job to fight terrorists? Certainly not. It would have been better had the terrorists never gotten so far as to provoke the wrath of the passengers of Flight 93. Todd Beamer and Mark Bingham should never have had to demonstrate their strength the way they did. But when the police act as though we were sheep, and harass citizens to demonstrate that they have the power to do it, they reject their strongest and most effective ally in the fight against terrorists.

Legislation like the Patriot Act is based on the idea of two warring powers, the government and the terrorists. The citizens, caught in the middle, are mere sheep amongst whom the terrorists hide, and through whom the government's gaze must penetrate to identify and capture the terrorists. This twisted idea of the "war" against terrorism explains why civil liberties are nothing but obstacles. From this perspective, people who oppose the Patriot Act seem to value their privacy over their lives--since the citizens' only means of protecting life is through greater government power. Similarly, from this perspective, it makes no sense to complain about having your film confiscated by an overzealous security guard, or about being dressed down by some small-fry bureaucrat in an airport. Every sphere of privacy you defend for yourself is a hindrance to the government's ability to protect us against terrorism.

This idea of the passive role of average citizens reveals an ignorance of the lessons that Todd Beamer and his fellow passengers taught us on September 11. One of those lessons is: the government is not the only entity that can neutralize terrorists. The "shoe bomber" Richard Reid got through the government screens at the airport, but not the citizen screens on the airplane. The police and security forces would not be as eager to harass people if they saw the public as their ally and not merely as their flock. For one thing, civil liberties and protection from terrorists would not be cast as mutually exclusive goods. And the petty officials that harass people just because they can, would be much less likely to be tolerated.

Posted by Carey at July 10, 2004 08:11 PM
Comments

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