One post 9/11 mantra is “do this or the terrorists win.” This has been used and is still being used to justify all sorts of things ranging from enhanced interrogation techniques to full body scans. While we obviously do not want to let the terrorists win, we need to be critical about whether something actually helps keep the terrorists from winning or not. We also need to critically consider what counts as a win for the terrorists.
For the most part, people tend to focus on the obvious terrorist victory condition: successfully killing people. However, while this is a terrorist goal, it is also primarily a means to a more fundamental end. This end, as their name implies, is the creation of terror. Naturally, terror is also a means to the ultimate end(s) of the terrorists. However, I will be focusing on terror in this discussion and leave the matter of ultimate ends to another time.
While the terrorists have not been very successful at killing Americans (we kill way more of each other in accidents and crimes), they seem to be doing quite well in creating terror. During the Bush years, American foreign policy was shaped by a terror of terrorists. This fear (and anger) led to practices that seemed to clearly violate key American principles and values (such as the right to trial, the right to privacy, and so on). While these practices were justified in terms of keeping America safe, we acted like a terrified people eager to trade liberties and treasure for security.
It might be replied that we were not acting out of fear, but that we acted courageously by invading two countries, by creating secret prisons, by tapping phones without warrants, and creating a massive homeland security apparatus to heroically spend billions of dollars.
The easy an obvious reply to this is to remind people of scare tactics and fear mongering employed to “justify” these things. Ironically, those who were supposed to fight the terrorists were actually helping them create terror by constantly employing these scare tactics and casting the terrorists as incredible threats. The terrorists, one might argue, could have hardly hoped for a better ally in making them appear significant, powerful and terrifying.
While we no longer see quite the same level of scare tactics that marked the Bush years, the terror continues. To use the most recent example, the body scans and body pats show that we are apparently still terrified (or at least our “leaders” are). Even children and grand parents are patted down. Of course, this is not the start of the humiliation, just the latest chapter. One of the most heartbreaking things I saw occurred when I was going through security a few years ago. I saw a very old man hobbling towards the security checkpoint, his leg wrapped in a brace. The TSA agents pulled him aside and made him take off his brace and then the other support under it. They were not particularly nice about it and tears started flowing from the old man’s eyes. I could hear him saying that he was a veteran and had been wounded in war (hence the brace). I started walking towards the old man, but a TSA agent stepped towards me, presumably ready to arrest me if I said anything about how they were treating the old veteran. That, it seems, was either an act motivated by cruelty or fear. After all, people who are not scared or mean do not treat people that way.
But, someone might say, terrorists might use kids or old people to carry bombs! Hence, we need to check everyone. After all, how would I feel if some kid or grandma took down a plane because of some misguided rules about not touching kids’ junk or taking images of grandma’s body?
First, saying that sort of thing seems to be a clear sign of being scared-the terrorists have some people so frightened at their alleged power and genius for destruction that they think that terrorists can get, for example, old American veterans to carry bombs or can load the children of middle America with bombs. The fact that we are so scared of even the most remote possibility of an attack (such as another underwear bomb) seems to be a sign of either stupidity or fear (or both).
Second, I do agree that people should not be exempt from security procedures. However, the process should be handled rationally and TSA should handle the checks better rather than humiliating, scaring and making people cry. We can have real security with dignity, but we need to change what we are doing now as well as the current attitude (as exemplified by Janet Napolitano, who, to borrow a phrase from the Tea Partiers, just doesn’t get it). Hmm, perhaps the government is not motivated by fear-maybe they just want to degrade and humiliate us.
We cannot beat the terrorists by being terrified. Yes, we should have effective security measures. But these should not be based on fear rather than reason.