It is well past time for the West to awake to the Hobbesian spectre which has been creeping upon us at since the Patriot Act, in the wake of 11 September 2001. While I am not a paranoid conspiracy theorist, it is pertinent to remember that most police states are implemented incrementally, slowly eroding the ability to push back.

The tension between freedom and security is an inevitable reality for any liberal society. Pure “liberty” is anarchy and leads to lack of security through the license it gives to pychopaths and power-mongers. Pure “security” is impossible and only strips us of liberty. With this assessment, few would quibble. The problem is where to draw the line between them. The devil lies in the details. The early Americans saw this issue and drafted the Bill of Rights as a safeguard against the pressures of security, demanding that the rights of the individual are the very thing which security needs to be protecting. Security without freedom is merely bondage.

The Patriot Act was the first, dangerous step in the erosion of these Constitutional freedoms: wiretaps without warrants, an increased security bureaucracy, rendition and “military” rather than civil tribunals. I am consistently angered by both parties’ unwillingness to strike down this document on civil liberties grounds. The problems with this bill are multiple: they masquerade reduced protections (warrants, etc) under the name of security while creating a more powerful organization under which to do them. And, since all of the proposals responded to an act of terrorism, the majority of citizens let it happen without protest.

Now, an organization empowered and created by that bill, the Transportation Safety Authority, have used money intended for economic stimulus to buy visual scanners for airports. These scanners are objectionable on multiple fronts. First, they violate the rule of unreasonable search ( Fourth Amendment ), treating regular citizens as criminals by violating their privacy. Second, the uncontrolled visual strip search is easily open to abuse. Third, there are valid health safety concerns in terms of radiation. Fourth and most worryingly, the TSA have openly admitted that they have a policy of punitive, sexual-assault-like pat downs for citizens objecting to the scan. (See  CNET   and  the Economist ). The principle of civil liberty enshrined in the US Constitution demands that such invasive searching should happen only with just cause, the kind which requires a warrant (or at the very least, reasonable suspicion). The fact that the TSA has the cheek to order “punitive” pat downs is a distressing sign of loss of civil freedoms.

I hope all citizens use their rights by refusing  the scan  and by complaining about abusive pat downs. Security organs should be using their time and efforts to find more sophisticated methods of foiling terrorists rather than eroding the rights of normal citizens.

This trend is not limited to the US, although I am most familiar with the US legal system. I find recent developments in Ireland and the UK to be along similar lines; the trouble with both of these countries is that they lack a bill of rights which directly prohibits their governments from such things.

 Jason M. Silverman
13 November 2010