Nearly Two decades After 9/11
Flying in the brave new age reminds me of a phenomenon that, earlier this week, I tried to partly capture in a tweet from the Portland (Maine) International Jetport (which is not the worse airport in America):
He who cannot explain why intrusive security still mars air travel NINETEEN years after 9/11 and decades after highjackings to Cuba does not understand the world.
Imagine the reaction of the honest supporters of the 2001 PATRIOT Act if they could have peeked at a TSA line two decades in the future: Americans showing their ID cards, removing their shoes and their belts, preparing their luggage for search, obediently following orders, putting their hands up in the scanner and, perhaps the worst, having come to think (at least for many of them) that the checkpoint society is totally normal.
There was even a Playmobil Security Check Point toy. The New York Times (“Playmobil Plays Fun in the Police State,” February 15, 2009) reported about an anonymous comment on an Amazon review of the product:
The set—which includes armed airport security officers, a metal detector and an X-ray screening machine—has drawn nearly 50 biting customer reviews, and scores of comments to those reviews, on Amazon.com.
“I applaud Playmobil for attempting to provide us with the tools we need to teach our children to unquestioningly obey the commands of the State Security Apparatus,” wrote one Amazon reviewer pseudonymously. “But unfortunately, this product falls short of doing that. There’s no brown figure for little Josh to profile, taser, and detain?”
It’s not clear if the scene reproduced below was built from the unadulterated toy (source: https://odditymall.com/tsa-airport-checkpoint-toy), but it looks like it. The manufacturer discontinued the product after six years, denying it was because of consumer complaints. Perhaps, after all, the Playmobil toy served as a good pedagogical moment.
There are many overlapping explanations of why this security apparatus is still in place. None requires a conspiracy theory, only the logic of state institutions—as economists use it in analyzing the political consequences of individual actions.
One explanation lies in the inefficiency of the state in protecting personal security. Air travel has been transformed in “travel to penal colony” as my friend George Jonas used to say. After 9/11, more intrusive “security” was imposed, officially to fight a few 7th-century fanatics living in caves. I agree that the problem is not simple in societies called free, where discriminatory controls and profiling are shunned for good reasons and where, therefore, it seems that everybody must be equally controlled and searched, from young children to old grandmothers. In a “free society” or in a totalitarian one, it seems, the state must oppress its subjects in order to protect them. (Does this criticism provide an argument for waging wars abroad instead of at home?)
A complementary explanation models the natural tendency of the state to turn into Leviathan. Thomas Hobbes even skipped the slippery slope and argued that a protective state is necessarily a Leviathan. Respectable schools of political philosophy and economics—Anthony de Jasay and Bertrand de Jouvenel come to mind—argue that the state naturally becomes Leviathan by using its clienteles’ demands as an excuse to increase its power until tyranny is finally unchallengeable or nearly so. Nine-eleven has been a great help to Leviathan.
At a more basic public-choice level, the development of the Security State creates constituencies that will render its retreat very difficult if not impossible. Just think of the jobs and privileges created in the security apparatus during the past few decades, from the ordinary policemen transformed into SWAT soldiers to the dignified border cops and the roughly 50,000 TSA employees. They won’t give up their turf easily.
Benjamin Franklin’s famous aphorism looks like a chiché:
They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.
It does however say something about the political economy of state security, but without capturing the collective-action problem of resisting to the growth of Leviathan.