John W. Whitehead
July 5, 2011
“They’re trying to scare the pants off the American people that we need these things… Fear is a commodity and they’re selling it. The more they can sell it, the more we buy into it. When American people are afraid, they will accept anything.”–Kate Hanni, passengers’ rights advocate
“Uncontrolled search and seizure is one of the first and most effective weapons in the arsenal of every arbitrary government…Among deprivations of rights, none is so effective in cowing a population, crushing the spirit of the individual and putting terror in every heart.”— Justice Robert Jackson, chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials
The transition to a police state will not come about with a dramatic coup d’etat, with battering rams and marauding militia. As we have experienced first-hand in recent years, it will creep in softly, one violation at a time, until suddenly you find yourself being subjected to random patdowns and security sweeps during your morning commute to work or quick trip to the shopping mall.
- A d v e r t i s e m e n t
Perhaps you have yet to experience the particular thrill, and I use that word loosely, of being manhandled by government agents, having your personal possessions pawed through, and your activities and associations scrutinized. If so, not to worry. It’s only a matter of time before more and more Americans will experience such a military task force knocking at their door. Only, chances are that it won’t be a knock, and they might not even be at home when government agents decide to “investigate” them. Indeed, as increasing numbers of Americans are discovering, these so-called “soft target” security inspections are taking place whenever and wherever the government deems appropriate, at random times and places, and without needing the justification of a particular threat. Worse, not only is this happening with the blessing of the Obama administration but at its urging.
What I’m describing–something that was once limited to authoritarian regimes–is only possible thanks to an unofficial rewriting of the Fourth Amendment by the courts that essentially does away with any distinctions over what is “reasonable” when it comes to searches and seizures by government agents. The rationale, of course, is that anything is “reasonable” in the war on terrorism. What the powers-that-be understand–and Americans remain oblivious to–is the fact that by constantly pushing the envelope and testing the limits of what Americans will tolerate, the government is thus able to ratchet up the level of intrusiveness that Americans consider reasonable.
The latest test of our tolerance comes from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the same agency that continues to make headlines with its intrusive airport searches of travelers. Most recently, for example, TSA agents at a Florida airport forced a 95-year-old wheelchair-bound cancer patient to remove her adult diaper during the course of a security check. This comes on the heels of numerous reports about travelers of all ages–most of whom clearly do not in any way fit the profile of a terrorist–being subjected to equally invasive searches and unreasonable demands by government agents, what one journalist refers to as “ritualized humiliation of travelers.”