Communion Of Dreams

Fear is the mind-killer.*

It’s time to wake up.

Bruce Schneier and Kip Hawley had a good debate recently in the pages of the Economist over the proposition: “This house believes that changes made to airport security since 9/11 have done more harm than good.”

Both of the primaries in the debate make their points about as solidly as they can be made, in my opinion, and the ensuing back & forth and discussion with other participants was . . . vigorous.

I wasn’t surprised at the result, though the moderator seems to have been. Here’s an excerpt from his final statement:

I thought Kip Hawley would have the tougher role as the opposer, but I have still been surprised at the vehemence and quantity of the views expressed in favour. The debate was American in emphasis, and the tetchiness of the relationship between many Americans and the TSA is perhaps something this Briton hadn’t fully appreciated. In Britain, where airports employ their own security, we lack the monolithic body on which to focus anger about liquids in hand luggage, shoe-removal and the like.

Voters have roundly declared that the frustrations, the delays, the loss of liberty and the increase in fear that characterise their interactions with airport-security procedures vastly outweigh the good these procedures achieve. For some, indeed, the benefits are essentially non-existent: any sensible terrorist can find a work-around or choose a different point of attack, as Bruce Schneier explains. And so the widely expressed hope is that changes made to security in the (near) future will make the whole regime less reactive, more rational, more flexible and more intelligence-driven. The results of this debate suggest that these changes should be made with some urgency: passengers are angry.

As I said, no surprise to me. That’s because the actual problem isn’t with security, it is with liberty. I think that this has been the main problem all along – the governmental response to the 9/11 attacks were understandable, predictable, and almost completely misguided. From Schneier’s closing statement:

The current TSA measures create an even greater harm: loss of liberty. Airports are effectively rights-free zones. Security officers have enormous power over you as a passenger. You have limited rights to refuse a search. Your possessions can be confiscated. You cannot make jokes, or wear clothing, that airport security does not approve of. You cannot travel anonymously. (Remember when we would mock Soviet-style “show me your papers” societies? That we’ve become inured to the very practice is a harm.) And if you’re on a certain secret list, you cannot fly, and you enter a Kafkaesque world where you cannot face your accuser, protest your innocence, clear your name, or even get confirmation from the government that someone, somewhere, has judged you guilty. These police powers would be illegal anywhere but in an airport, and we are all harmed—individually and collectively—by their existence.

And this is *exactly* what was desired by Osama bin Laden all along: to prompt us to react in fear, to incur huge expenses in trying to make ourselves ‘safe’, and to stress the very foundations of our society. Again, from Schneier:

Increased fear is the final harm, and its effects are both emotional and physical. By sowing mistrust, by stripping us of our privacy—and in many cases our dignity—by taking away our rights, by subjecting us to arbitrary and irrational rules, and by constantly reminding us that this is the only thing between us and death by the hands of terrorists, the TSA and its ilk are sowing fear. And by doing so, they are playing directly into the terrorists’ hands.

The goal of terrorism is not to crash planes, or even to kill people; the goal of terrorism is to cause terror. Liquid bombs, PETN, planes as missiles: these are all tactics designed to cause terror by killing innocents. But terrorists can only do so much. They cannot take away our freedoms. They cannot reduce our liberties. They cannot, by themselves, cause that much terror. It’s our reaction to terrorism that determines whether or not their actions are ultimately successful. That we allow governments to do these things to us—to effectively do the terrorists’ job for them—is the greatest harm of all.

Complete safety is an illusion. A fantasy. I know most people don’t want to actually think about that, but the truth is that living is a terminal disease and there’s more than a fair chance you will suffer your share of accidents along the way. Accept that, and you can go through your life trying to minimize those while maximizing your happiness. But if you are obsessed with never being at risk – if you let fear control you – then you will be controlled by others.

I’ve written a lot about terrorism (64 tags), and violence (82), and civil rights (102) over the years, going on and on about how our privacy and even our dignity have been eroded by unthinking fear. I guess I have long since passed the point of being a crank about this in general and the TSA in particular.

But this is important. Essential, I would say, for the life of our Republic. We’ve stumbled. Just as we have stumbled before in the face of a shocking attack. We’ve stumbled in blind panic. We’ve all been through a kind of societal Posttraumatic stress disorder. And the time has come to shake off the fear response, to once again engage the thinking parts of our brains. Only then can we hope to recover not just life, but also liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Jim Downey

*Of course: “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear… And when it is gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear is gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

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Comment by Liz Soldwish-Zoole

[…] Schneier, who recently debated Hawley in the pages of the Economist, has his (very positive, all in all) reaction […]

Pingback by The gift that keeps on giving. « Communion Of Dreams

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