On Security and Liberty: Radio Essay for October 1, 2011

My first airplane ride was unforgettable. I was a 14 year old Boy Scout en route to the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. The Boeing 727 was a passenger/cargo configuration that left LaGuardia airport on an evening flight making stops in Nashville and Memphis before heading west to Colorado Springs. Who could sleep? The choreographed hum on the tarmac; boarding not through a jetway but from stairs; the roar of a JT9 engine on takeoff and the ear splitting whine at altitude; the reds and blues and whites of the taxiways and runways at night. It was easily 3 AM before I fell asleep.
Air travel was alluring and exotic then. The Mutual of Omaha insurance kiosks reminded us that the dangers of flying were generally limited to full blown disaster and the occasional hijacking to Cuba. I cannot recall much in the way of airport security and visitors were free to come and go to meet and greet you as your flight landed.

Fast forwarding some 42 years to my experiences this week provides quite a contrast. You know all-to-well the drill. First one shows ID at check-in and shows it again for the privilege of going through security. The latest indignity begins at that moment when one has to empty the computer into a separate bin and place shoes, belt, pocket contents, and all liquids into another before going into the screening booth that reveals more about your anatomy to a stranger than you are probably willing to disclose to your physician. You can be swabbed for nitrates and patted down for who-knows-what. Long gone is the innocence of that classically romantic airport farewell between Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund in the movie Casablanca. The intrigue of flight and flying that captured the imagination of so many youngsters who, like me, used to hang out at the end of runways watching airport traffic has been traded for some sense of security that comes from proscription.
I’ve been traveling like mad since the mid 70’s. Airplanes and airports have been the target of choice for would-be villains of the skies for nearly half a century. I recall receiving some counsel back in the 80’s from a CIA agent who suggested carrying a Sunday New York Times in my briefcase in order to shield my body in the event of gunfire as I traveled through European airports. I wonder if a Kindle would do the trick.

All of this caution and willing dilutions of personal liberty are appropriate responses to the threat of terror and the responsible thing to do aren’t they? If our security consciousness were contained to airports I might be able to compartmentalize the experience as a focus of security necessity.

Here is where I get skittish. Scott Pelly recently interviewed NYPD Chief Raymond Kelly on 60 Minutes. Kelly runs a police department that is larger than either the United States Coast Guard or the FBI. It has its own navy, including submersibles and surface craft equipped with nuclear detection equipment that is sensitive enough to sense yachtsmen who have had recent radiation therapy. It is an army of 45,000 police augmented by 10,000 more civilians and its air force has the capability to shoot down aircraft, presumably civilian airliners turned into missiles.

All of this manpower is fed by sophisticated intelligence on the ground in all corners of the globe. The NYPD has officers in Riyadh, Baghdad, Singapore, London, Belfast and Islamabad, just to name a few cities. All of this feeds the intel beast. And here is where the slippery slope grows more so.
There is an underground bunker in New York City at a secret location. I’m not making this up. CBS took us there on a tour during the Kelly interview. The intelligence center processes all of the information collected from its myriad of sources. Those sources include some 2000 video cameras, soon to number 3000 cameras, spread across the city streets. They have the ability to automatically track left baggage and dispatch bomb squads to locations across the city.
Impressive capabilities, to be sure, but this is where chills went down my spine. The camera system has the ability to find and track a suspect by description. They demonstrated how a suspect in a red shirt could be culled out from a crowd and tracked across the city. Immediately, anyone wearing a red shirt in range of 2000 cameras became a suspect worth following. That might or might not include the person of interest but it would certainly include hundreds or perhaps thousands of innocent and unsuspecting citizens.

My law professor at Kings Point, Captain Laurence Jarrett, once said, “The right to swing your arm ends at my nose.” I know that the days of unfettered access to airports and airplanes is not going to return in my lifetime. That has been ceded to the War on Terror. And who would argue that pursuing the criminal terrorist is wrong? I am all in favor of pursuing the jihadist bent on terrorism.

The incremental usurpations in the name of security are transforming our society in ways that we could never have imagined only 10 years ago. These tools are used to close the net on the enemies of the state. The time that I am concerned about is when the NYPD is directed to divert its’ tracking from the suspect in the red shirt in favor of the suspect holding a Gadsden flag. Whom we place at the helm of this ship of state grows increasingly important. The public discussion of what liberties we are willing to cede to the state is needed now lest we incessantly redact portions of the Constitution.

As the novelist Henry Miller reminds us, “The man who looks for security, even in the mind, is like a man who would chop off his limbs in order to have artificial ones which will give him no pain or trouble.”

Exchanging liberty for security is not an even trade.

Press on.

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