Homeland Security: Reflecting badly on the U.S. government

If you use the word Photo: Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano (Associated Press)

NATCHITOCHES, La., May 28, 2012 — It’s an economic truism that everything we want has a cost. Milk, gasoline, liberty and security all have price tags. We can’t have all the security we want without giving up something for it, anymore than most of us can have a Ferrari without giving up food and shelter.

It isn’t just money you give up when you buy a car; it’s what you would have bought if you hadn’t bought the car. If you spend a $1,000 on Facebook stock, that’s money you can’t use to buy Apple. You have to make hard, cold decisions about what you really want, because you can’t have it all.

So what is the price of security? Part of it is apparently the loss of dignity when you travel by air. You stand in a glass box with your arms up in a position of abject submission while someone looks through your clothes at the effects of too much fried food. You’re made to empty your pockets, take off your shoes, perhaps be groped and watch your child be groped. You answer intrusive questions, and you make sure to be respectful and submissive at all times, lest they think that you are hostile and deserving of more careful examination.

These security procedures are spreading, as anyone with any awareness of politics and bureaucracy would know they must. Travelers on trains, subways and buses are subject to increasing TSA scrutiny. People in England have grown accustomed to ubiquitous observation by video camera, and now American authorities are interested in doing that one better, using drones to add another layer of scrutiny.

The Department of Homeland Security has released a list of words that its agents use to look for potentially dangerous activity on the Internet. Their brief has until now included not just looking for the next Al Qaeda plot and drug traffickers, but also to looking for comments that “reflect adversely” on the U.S. government, and to identify “media reports that reflect adversely on DHS and response activities.”

Defending the security of Americans in their homes and in their liberty is a constitutional obligation of the United States government. That obligation necessarily imposes some losses of liberty, and the Constitution does not guarantee us perfect, inviolate liberty. It cannot. On the other hand, we should ask whether we’re buying more security, at too high a cost in liberty, than a free people should. At some point, we buy so much security that we have no liberty left.

You will not be arrested for using the words “cloud,” “exercise,” “initiative,” “Mexico,” or “Homeland security” on your Facebook page. You will, however, run an increased chance of having agents of the U.S. government join your friends in reading your status updates. The odds are that they, like your friends, will be bored to tears by your status, but that really isn’t the point.

People occasionally applaud increased government surveillance with the comment, “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about.” Even if that were true (it is not), it would miss the point. Privacy is entwined with liberty as something that we desire on its own, not just as a means to other ends. We want privacy not so that we can plot mayhem and have unlimited kinky sex with the servants, but because there’s a little Greto Garbo in each of us that sometimes just wants “to be let alone.”

We can’t be let alone in airports. No security at all would be just as bad as being forced to fly nude. (If the attempt to set off a shoe bomb led TSA to make us remove our shoes in airports, will the recent underwear bomb persuade them that we should fly commando?) Security is not an entirely bad thing. However, each of us has a sense of how much we’re willing to give up for the opportunity to be treated by the airlines like a cargo of manure, and given that airlines have made travel a miserable and demeaning experience, TSA gropes just add insult to injury.

In that vein, there’s not much we can do to reflect adversely on the U.S. government that the government doesn’t already do. And that is one more cost of security, especially when it’s pursued as mindlessly as those vague DHS directives suggest: It reduces respect for and confidence in the government.

Government is necessary. Its acts should always be treated with healthy skepticism, but it cannot function properly if it isn’t also viewed with respect. Nothing that any journalist or critic has ever said about the government reflects more adversely on it that do the government’s own documents and actions.

Liberty and security are both good, but there is constant tension between them. Ideally, the arguments in our politics would reflect different weights put on competing values, not a form of religious warfare. We should never trust blindly in any government program, but it’s a pity that we can’t at least trust in the intelligence and thought that go into those programs and the decency of the people who create them. It’s even worse that sometimes the best interpretation of what goes on in government is simple stupidity or malice.

A DHS program to look for threats on the Internet is not stupid. The implication of its instructions — that it is looking for dissent, not just terrorism — is stupid, and potentially very, very dangerous. If DHS is going to conduct its pursuit of Internet security the way it does airport screenings, we should feel not just not-secure, but violated. 

 


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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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