Adam Serwer on the TSA Wars

Adam Serwer of The American Prospect has written a fascinating column that, despite brief forays into conservative-bashing, is well worth a look. His basic argument is that conservative outrage over invasive TSA screening procedures reflects a powerful cognitive bias:


The amount of freedom Americans have handed over to their government in the years since the 9/11 attacks is difficult to convey. We’ve simply accepted the idea of the government secretly listening in on our phone calls and demanding private records from companies without warrants. Many shiver at the notion of trying suspected terrorists in civilian courts, and even at the idea of granting the accused legal representation. The last president of the United States brags openly about ordering people to be tortured, and the current one asserts the authority to kill American citizens he believes to be terrorists overseas.

But most of these measures are either invisible enough to put out of mind or occur outside of what most Americans can imagine happening to them. As long as it’s just Muslims being tortured and foreigners being detained indefinitely, the price we pay to feel secure seems all too abstract. The TSA’s new passenger-screening measures just happen to fall on the political and economic elites who can make their complaints heard. It’s not happening to those scary Arabs anymore. It’s happening to “us.”

As Tim Lee has argued, America’s affluence accounts for part of this phenomenon. At the same time that large numbers of Americans have embraced same-sex marriage rights, there has been relatively little interest in the rights of detainees in the war on terrorism. One obvious explanation is that while many Americans know lesbians and gay men, they haven’t met anyone detained on charges of aiding Al Qaeda or one of its allies. In a similar vein, many Americans were quite comfortable with the idea of granting amnesty to Vietnam era deserters who had fled to Canada, Sweden, and other countries: these young Americans were recognizable, and easy to imagine as wayward children or siblings or friends.  

I don’t think Adam’s characterization is fair, i.e., I don’t think that anti-Muslim prejudice is the culprit. But I do think that Americans have a hard time identifying with Afghans or Arabs who lead unrecognizably different lives. And an idiosyncratic figure like Jose Padilla — relatively few Brooklyn-born Latinos have devoted their lives to armed struggle against their native country — is only slightly more “relatable.”

Then, of course, there is the fact that many U.S. conservatives believe, rightly or wrongly, that the detainee policies Adam condemns are effective, and that the terrorist threat is an urgent one. That helps account for the following:

This comprehensive assault on individual freedom didn’t occur in a vacuum; it occurred because conservatives were successful in frightening Americans into choosing security over liberty every time the choice was before them, and because America’s elected officials take being blamed for a terrorist attack more seriously than their oath to protect the Constitution. While the scanners have been in development for years, their deployment was rapidly accelerated in the aftermath of last year’s attempted underwear bombing, as the TSA became even more concerned about the threat of nonmetallic objects. Conservatives must now face the Frankenstein they created by breathlessly hyping the threat of terrorism for political gain: A recent CBS poll found that 81 percent of Americans support the new machines.

The premise of this passage seems to be that conservatives were cynically “hyping the threat of terrorism,” a characterization that doesn’t comport with my admittedly limited experience. My sense is that the conservative I knew working in electoral politics were convinced that the terrorist threat was profoundly serious, and that our country was in a state of emergency that merited a new, more forward-leaning approach to domestic security. Indeed, many of the conservatives I spoke to in 2004 were furious with the Bush Administration for a variety of reasons, yet they saw the existential struggle against terrorism as reason enough to devote a great deal of time and energy to his reelection campaign. I’ve always been more convinced about our collective resilience in the face of terrorism, but I never really doubted the sincerity of the conservatives I have in mind. 

While I appreciate Adam’s contribution — he really is right that the TSA backlash reflects the frustration of a relatively privileged group that has grown less alarmed by the terrorist threat rather than consistent civil libertarian principle — I tend to think that building a broader coalition on civil liberties issues requires more constructive engagement with those for whom fear of terrorism was more than a political strategy. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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