With the confluence of the Medal of Honor award to the first living recipient since the Vietnam War and the TSA “pat down” fiasco, Americans were presented with an odd, but telling juxtaposition of stories on the front pages of their local newspapers.  Above the fold, the story of Sgt. Salvatore Giunta – the Hiawatha, Iowa native who, on a night-darkened ridgeline in Afghanistan in 2007 single-handedly took on a Taliban ambush, saving the lives of several fellow soldiers.  Below the fold, American travelers complaining of the ignominies suffered at the hands of the TSA, while the agency’s chief – the properly named, John Pistole – defends the new airport security procedures as necessary in order to respond to the “ever-evolving nature of the terrorist threat.”

Above the fold: bravery in the face of utter danger, below the fold: fear in the face remote danger.

In their defense, our government agencies have been tasked with protecting travelers, and they know better than anyone the costs of failure. As former FAA official Cathal Flynn stated to ABC News, “The patdown is unavoidably intrusive, embarrassing, uncomfortable, but it’s an unfortunate price of security these days to keep the components of bombs off planes. It’s a dangerous world, and the probability of an attack on flights on any given day are extremely low, but the results of one such attack by the terrorists can be of course catastrophic.”

Supporters of the new procedures have demanded their opponents provide better ideas that would be less offensive, while still maintaining a similar level of security. Many on the right have called for some form of profiling as a way of accomplishing this. But it’s time for those opponents of these “enhanced interrogations” to respond to the question: at what price security?

At what point do we approximate Tocqueville’s fear that “a nation that demands of its government only the maintenance of order is already a slave at the bottom of its heart; it is a slave of its well-being, and the man who is to put it in chains shall appear”?  I don’t readily fear the man with the chains…but that guy with the blue uniform and rubber gloves to match?

Having experienced the new security “Full Monty” (both body scan and pat-down) before a recent trip to a conference about “America’s Founding Principles” (ironic, huh?), I believe that after years of increasing incursions we have crossed a line.  This is not a rant about having to wait in long security lines at LAX, but a questioning of our national fortitude in the battle against enemies who view these new security practices as small victories. Nor is this a plea for profiling as a means of making us all feel safer.

In this Front Porch Republic, undergirding the value of “Limits” is a simple policy question: even if we can, should we? As it pertains to this TSA maelstrom, the question becomes: even if these searches make us slightly safer, should we do it? Is safety our summum bonum?

What makes this challenge so uniquely American is our history of risk-taking – particularly in travel. Reading the many travelogues penned by European visitors in the 19th and early 20th centuries, one constant theme is the revulsion at which these tourists viewed American travel – whether by rail, boat, or stagecoach. Sitting with the driver atop a stagecoach near Niagara Falls in the 1850’s, Englishwoman Marianne Finch remarked that she “had plenty of fresh air, and magnificent views. The only drawbacks were, that my back was pummeled to a jelly against the iron bars behind me, and that I had to hold fast with both hands to keep myself from falling under the horses’ heels.”[i]

A few years later, John McGregor, an Englishman, who learned about canoeing in his American voyage –later introducing the sport to England –recounted his experiences travelling on America’s rails. Following his description of running over (and killing) a pedestrian in a trip from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., McGregor enumerates: “In another case, we saw an engine that had tumbled over an embankment; in another, we smashed a carriage; in another we killed a pig; in another we killed a cow; in another we took to a raft, as the bridge burned.”[ii]

More recently, it was Daniel Boorstin in his insightful, The Image, who reminded us that the word “travel” derives from “travail”, but now, with transport being so relatively free of risk, “the tourist gets there without the experience of having gone.”[iii] One wonders what the late Professor Boorstin would make of these latest security measures. It’s possible he might accuse me of making a “pseudo-event” out of these pat-downs, but I don’t think so. I wonder if he might be appalled at how homogenization has moved from our destinations to our points of departure – all in the service of security.

This may sound corny or bigoted to some, but what’s missing, it seems to me, is a call to our innate American courage.  A reference to the Americans Kipling found during his first visit to this country a century ago: “him I love because he is devoid of fear, [he] carries himself like a man, and has a heart as big as his boots. I fancy, too, he knows how to enjoy the blessings of life.”[iv] Is there any remnant of this intrepid American in the line of nervous and irritated travelers at airport security these days?

We don’t hear much talk about “valor” these days except in ceremonies like Sgt. Giunta’s. Our churches don’t talk much about it, and our political leaders seem, ironically, afraid to. Lost in the discussion about the new TSA procedures is what may come next once the enemy leaps this latest hurdle. From our belts, to our shoes, to our “junk”, the trajectory is not comforting. While leaders have asked us to “keep shopping” in response to the terrorists’ threats, perhaps it’s time to talk about the courage demanded in setting limits. In so doing we will not earn Medals of Honor, but we will deserve the name “citizens” of this Republic.


[i] Finch, Marianne. An Englishwoman’s Experience in America (1853). New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969.

[ii] MacGregor, John. Our Brothers and Cousins: A Summer Tour in Canada and the States (1859). Carlisle, MA: Applewood Books, pp. 87-88.

[iii] Boorstin, Daniel. The Image. New York: Vintage Books Edition, 1992. p. 94.

[iv] Kipling, Rudyard. American Notes (1899). New York: Standard Book Company, 1930. p. 69.

9 COMMENTS

  1. I generally try not to quote lengthy sections of other people’s writing in comments, but this one is apropos I think. It comes from a much longer essay by Patrick Smith, the pilot behind Salon’s Ask The Pilot column:

    No less frustrating is the strained notion that, beginning with the events of September 11th, air travel suddenly entered a brand new age of unprecedented danger and threat. We’re asked to accept some “new reality” of air travel, when really the risks aren’t much different than they were ten, twenty, or thirty years ago. The attacks of 2001 stand as terrorism’s defining spectacle, and the ongoing threat of future attacks cannot be denied.However, acts of political violence against civil aviation are hardly a recent phenomenon. In fact we see far fewer of them than we used to. By comprison, once can remember the 1970s and 1980s as sort of Golden Age of Air Crimes, rich with hijackings and bombings. Over one five-year span between 1985 and 1989 we can count at least six high-profile terrorist attacks against commercial planes or airports. These include the horrific bombings of Pan Am 103 and UTA 772, the bombing of an Air India 747 over the North Atlantic that killed 329 people, and the saga of TWA flight 847.
    Flight 847, headed from Athens to Rome, was hijacked by Shiite militiamen armed with grenades and pistols. The purloined 727 then embarked on a remarkable, 17-day odyssey to Lebanon, Algeria, and back again. At one point passengers are removed, split into groups and held captive in downtown Beirut. The photograph of TWA captain John Testrake, his head out the cockpit window, collared by a gun-wielding terrorist, was broadcast worldwide and became an unforgettable icon of the siege.I say “unforgettable” but that’s just the thing. How many Americans remember flight 847? We act as if the clock didn’t began ticking until September 11th, 2001. In truth we’ve been dealing with this stuff for decades. It’s astonishing how short our memories are. And partly because they’re so short, we are easily frightened and manipulated.Imagine TWA 847 happening tomorrow. Imagine six successful terror attacks against commercial aviation in a five-year span. The airline industry would be paralyzed, the populace frozen in abject fear. It would be a catastrophe of epic proportion — of wall-to-wall coverage and, dare I suggest, the summary surrender of important civil liberties. What is it about us, as a nation, that has made us so unable to remember, and unable to cope?

  2. I hope this post holds its front-row seat past the Thanksgiving holiday, so it can get the attention it deserves. In a couple of comments to Caleb’s, John’s, and Mark’s posts I have encouraged FPR to come up with plank related to the recent step-up of TSA “security.” This post is a step in that direction. Past conversations here on the porch have had at least a hint of isolationism about them. If we are going to tolerate greater risk in order to maintain greater freedom will we likewise maintain a credible threat to those who make that risk real? Theadore Cleaver, Richie Cunningham, and I enjoyed a pretty peaceful–and quite local, I might add–youth, at least in part due to M.A.D.. My guess would be that many of the folk who hang out here would regard Dr. Strangelove as excellent commentary on that cold-war standoff. Maybe it’s nostalgia but that peace, uneasy though it was seems better than the current state of Unilateral Assurance That We Won’t Do Much. (Acronymist needed).

    BTW. This really isn’t the best place to do this, but it is about the only venue available to a com-box dweller: (See last bullet below)
    On this Thanksgiving I am appreciative of the efforts of those who maintain this porch, and those who contribute words worthy of thought. It is a poor excuse for the real thing, but for me, and I suspect others, it represents an opportunity to swap ideas that would not normally be available.

    To Jason: Your Nascar neighbors might have a kuzzin who can work a computer and read. Be careful.
    To John: May you enjoy distributing Thanksgiving dinner.
    To Mark: Be careful of that Kearneyville vintage & save me some jelly.
    To Caleb: Pull your hat up. You remind me of Beetle Bailey.
    To Bob: I hope your cave is warm on this holiday.
    To Rachel: Your address on the contact tab doesn’t work. Probably a smart move.

    To all: I hope you have a blessed Thanksgiving.

  3. WeaslyPilgrim, I found the Salon article you quote from quite provocative as well. Strange bedfellows, here, Salon and FPR.

    And I do have to say that this does seem to be the clearest clash in American society between safety and liberty or dignity. One can also say, as many people do, that money would be better spent on things that actually protect us from attacks than on things that make people feel more protected.

    Also: this is somewhat beside the point, but you mention how many on the right have been suggesting that profiling is the answer–that these machines and gropings would be acceptable if they were applied with profiling.

    This disgusts me. These people are only upset with the new procedures because they themselves–in all their white, Republican, Christian, middle class, respectable innocence–could be subjected to them. They have no objection–constitutional, moral, or any other kind–to naked pictures and gropings more substantial than their own personal inconvenience. And they think that being Muslim or dark-skinned and bearded is sufficiently reasonable cause for search and seizure.

  4. The essays regarding the TSA is not at all what I expected to find on the Front Porch. Perhaps its changed or wasnt what I thought it was. Granted, the core idea regarding the trade off of freedom for safety leans toward freedom but nowhere has utilization and dependency upon the airlines as a mode of travel been addressed. I suppose air travel is so imbedded in modern life, so much a part of work and vacation that it is one of those areas that front porchers simply assume is needed and should be preserved along with family and community.
    I do not believe that the call for courage is corney nor can I see where it is bigoted to assume that there is an innate american courage that might be tapped into when faced with the question of risk. The only question I have is why these issues are being raised now at this juncture. After all, the way we are now treated in the airport is not unlike how we have allowed our children to be treated in public schools over the last few decades in order to assure the “safety” of our children. Zero tolerance rules regarding fighting and weapons, drug testing, metal detectors, book bag searches (and not long ago a supreme court case involving a strip search of 13 year old girl on the hunch that she might be carrying tylonol in her panties) along with police patroling the halls are part of the daily public school experience. I think that drawing the line on the use of body scans and pat down searches at airports is a tad late and I fear that after their indoctrination regarding safety in our public schools, our children won’t even recognize a privacy issue in such matters.

  5. “In their defense, our government agencies have been tasked with protecting travelers, and they know better than anyone the costs of failure.”

    Well, the cost for THEM is… zero. I don’t think a single government official lost his/her job after 9/11.

  6. “After all, the way we are now treated in the airport is not unlike how we have allowed our children to be treated in public schools over the last few decades in order to assure the “safety” of our children.”

    Say what?! No one pats my children down or views them naked in order for them to get into school, nor have I ever heard of a school where this was the common practice.

  7. When you write that “perhaps it’s time to talk about the courage demanded in setting limits” (in particular reference to the TSA’s increasingly physical pat-downs, but also to higher-up “confidential material”), I’m inclined to wonder what American responses would be to the sudden call to bravery and government retreat. The secrets that the government allegedly keeps are like the car crash that we deeply regret: we’re upset that it had to happen, but we’re still so eager to see its grisly wreckage. Do we want to feel engaged in the larger battles that are at hand, afraid of our small lives and in sore need of some large-scale drama? Or do we opt for optimism, and believe (as I do) that what we will see instead is an increased patriotism, public servitude, and interest in voting? Won’t more citizens feel as though they are called to find ways to serve the nation between election days?

    The initial vision for democracy as put forth by the Greeks sought to bring the widest number of citizens into public service, and so I can assume that there was an underlying desire to make sure that every policy, thought and law was known by as many people as possible. And Pete, while you’re not talking specifically about big government, I think this instance is such a poignant one, and one that should call us to evaluate how much the average citizen has willingly withdrawn from active roles in the politics behind such TSA activities. Maybe, in the end, we’ve asked for this to happen.

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