Yesterday’s post seems to have triggered a huge outpouring of comments, and I see the same issues being discussed all over the internet, in a hundred different places. Needless to say, there’s a huge range of opinions, but some of the polls I’ve looked at suggest the majority of Americans are okay with these new TSA “security” measures because, after all, they are “for our safety.”
Can we really have turned into such a nation of compliant sheep? Or maybe it’s a question of age. I have a feeling that the people who are most outraged by the TSA and its counterparts around the world are my age or older (I am 57, for a point of reference), because we’re the only ones who still remember what it was like to live in a free country.
This erosion of freedom has been going on all my life. It did not happen all at once on a Tuesday, when some fascist government came to power; it happened in dribs and drabs, so gradually that we hardly noticed it, with a law here and a rule there and a little tightening of security over there, and always for our own good, to keep us safe, to protect us.
I am not just talking about air travel either, though airport “security” is perhaps the most egregious and in-you-face example. Our “protectors” have touched almost every facet of modern American life… and I get the feeling there are a lot of people in their twenties and thirties who think that things were always like this.
A few examples.
When I first started selling stories in the early 70s and went to New York City to see my editors, I would walk into the building, check what floor they were on, ride up in an elevator, and tell a receptionist I was there to see Mr. Smith. Now, when I visit my editors, I have to check in with uniformed security guards in the lobby, present a picture ID, clip a badge to my jacket. In some buildings I have to pass through a metal detector, just like in an airport.
When I first started staying at hotels, I would give my name to a desk clerk, who would check my reservation, and then present me with a card to fill out, or a register to sign. No one ever asked to see my identification. No one ever asked to take a credit card imprint. It was understood that you would settle your bill when you checked out, either by credit card, cash, or check. (Yes, I paid by check a lot back then, even in distant cities). You were assumed to be who you said you were… and if you wanted to give a fake name (I didn’t, but there were those who did), that was your business too, so long as you paid your bill.
When I was a kid, we always felt free and superior watching World War II movies, where those evil Nazis were forever stopping the heroes and demanding to see “their papers.” That would never happen to US, we knew. We were Americans. We did not have to carry “papers.” Yet now there’s talk of a national ID card, and the driver’s license has become almost that by default. A driver’s license was intended to prove that you were licensed to operate an automobile, yet now all sorts of people demand to see it for all sorts of things. At the bank, at the grocery store, in the airport, in a thousand other places, you have people refusing to allow you to do your business unless you first show your “papers.” We have become the very thing that we once despised.
These are just a few instances. I could cite a hundred more, if I did not have a book to write. Security codes and security guards have become so ubiquitous in this society that we hardly notice them any longer (when I was kid, you only saw guards in banks). More and more jobs and professions require licenses and fees before we are allowed to practice them. Zoning laws and building regulations grow ever more complex and stringent all over the country, so our neighbors and local governments can tell us what we can and cannot do with our own property. And those friendly feds are always there, keeping track of what we read and who we email and listening in on our phone calls. The Bush administration has been the worst offender in this regard, but they are by no means the first.
And it is all to “protect” us.
From who, I wonder?
I don’t feel safer than I did when I was twenty. Far from it. I do feel less free. We live in an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust and fear, and when we dare to raise our voices in protest, there is always some yahoo ready to tell us to shut up and leave these matters to the proper authorities, that it is all to keep us safe. And it seems there will always be a large sheepish majority ready to accept whatever new rule or regulation is being promulgated. “Baaa, baaa, it’s to keep us safe, baaa, baaa, it’s for our own good, baaa, baaa, it’s just a little thing, nothing important, only an inconvenience, why do you want privacy if you don’t have something to hide, baaa, baaa, baaa.”
These people have forgotten what it was like to be free. Maybe they never knew.
What is “freedom,” anyway? We could debate that for hundreds of posts, I’m sure, and maybe we will. The way I see it, however, it has got to mean more than just being able to choose between a Republican and a Democrat every few years. I want all the rights and freedoms guaranteed me in the Bill of Rights, certainly… including the one protecting me against unreasonable searches and seizures that we have abrogated in the name of safety and airport “security.” But the Bill of Rights should not be the end of it. The right to privacy may have been invented by the Supreme Court rather than the Founding Fathers, you can argue that as you will, but however it came about, it’s a pretty nifty right and I’d like to hang on to it. I want the right to do stupid, hazardous, self-destructive stuff as well; to drink absinthe, smoke pot, smoke tobacco, drive my car without the seatbelt, bungee jump off bridges, watch porn, order my eggs sunny-side up and my hamburgers rare, have unprotected sex, drink unpasteurized milk. I have only done a few of those things, actually (I will leave it to you to figure out which ones), and most I would never consider — but I SHOULD have the right to do all of them. The choice should be mine, not yours, and not the government’s. Giving individuals a CHOICE in how we live is our lives is the essence of freedom, I think.
And shouldn’t ordinary law-abiding people have the basic, fundamental right not to be treated like goddamned criminals everywhere they go?
The world is a hazardous place, certainly… but you know, the world has always been a hazardous place (in the cosmic scheme of things, it was not so long ago that we were building walls around our towns and cities), yet in the end, all men must die. The important thing is how we live while we’re still here, and I would sooner live free, even if that means more risk. A police state is always safer than a free country, so long as you stay on the right side of those police, but I’d rather not live in one all the same.