Written mid-2002, this is a letter from the future.
My name is Philip. The year is 2014. I am a citizen of the United States of America. I’d like to tell you what life is like here.
They never bothered repealing the Constitution: that would have been too messy and might have technically rendered the nation dissolved, anyhow. But that didn’t stop them from claiming national security whenever they needed to circumvent it. It all started with the airways. Airplanes are something that people understand are delicate instruments. Plane crashes kill hundreds of people; while far more rare than fatal car crashes, they’re far more dramatic and are easier to put in a headline or on the evening news. Not to mention September 11th. As a private industry, they are, technically, allowed to offer service to whomever they please and deny service likewise. There could be no reasonable law to prevent airlines from harassing passengers and conducting random searches. It seemed desirable at the time, anyhow – people appreciated the extra efforts spent to ensure their security and the federal government knew it would be bad for business and tourism to have planes crashing into things left and right. So they allowed it — encouraged it even with FAA security mandates.
After 9/11, they deemed it necesssary to have all luggage inspectors be US citizens and government employees, firing thousands of perfectly competent workers and replacing them with throngs of naive, young recruits, suddenly giving the government much more wide-ranging control over the airlines industry. Between the FAA, the Homeland Securities Act, and the repeated bailouts of the airlines, it was only a thin veneer of capitalism spread on a few different brands of what was becoming a singular government-backed airline.
The distinction went unnoticed by many, but in making a transition from a private to a public space, the activities permitted (random search and seizure, monitoring, etc.) should have been severely constrained. The government is not allowed to search people or their belongings without a warrant, but Homeland Security was permitted to do so if you were boarding an aircraft. An aircraft, it was understood, was a special exception that required care exceeding that which the Constitution permitted.
Similar arguments were constructed for forcing random checks of people driving in downtown areas, but those weren’t instituted until the San Francisco Transamerica building attack of 2004, delivered by a UHaul full of explosives. While people were upset at getting pulled over or periodically having to go through federal checkpoints as part of their daily commutes, they understood it as being part of the cost of living safe lives.
When the Palistinians started moving their suicide bombing approach to D.C. in 2006 after Camp David meetings went sour with Arafat’s assassination, street checks became common in the Capital, followed by other cities in rapid succession. These days, it’s an even bet whether a federal Security Officer will grab a hold of you for a full body search
on your way home from a bar in rural Kentucky.
Our rights were not taken away wholesale by the sudden rise of a dictator or the victor of a coup. They were taken away piecewise, as small concessions to safety and the stability of our way of life. They were taken away as reactions to events, not as the goal of some longterm melevolent plan. There was no evil mastermind – every step of the way passed democratically, gradually, inevitably.
In many ways, that makes our problem worse. There is no dictator to overthrow and replace with a good government. We already have a good government, in theory. What can be done?
A change in our rights requires people to care, requires people to vote, requires people to speak, and requires people to listen. Civil rights are only maintained through active defense. They do not come through quiet pacifism and do not remain without stalwart believers in their cause. Rights default to the powerful without active opposition. We simply forgot to care – we felt the need to side with the rich and the powerful, as the serfs of the Dark Ages were comfortable yielding to the lords, giving up land rights and grain in exchange for protection from other lords. The masses will yield to adversity and will proffer, with stupefying rapidity, their hardest won rights for a sense of safety.
In this way, it has come to be said that while the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, vigilance comes at the expense of freedom.
In the computer security world, there is a known tradeoff in nearly all systems between convenience and security. The more convenient a system is, the less secure it tends to be: a system with no password or authentication at all is very convenient – you will always be able to get on and you will never lose your credentials. On the other hand, it’s totally insecure. Vice versa, a system that requires a lot of security tends to be very inconvenient.
In the real world, “convenience” is “freedom”. Not being able to make jokes in an airport about airports, not being able to be angry, or even, as of last year, not being able to think violent thoughts in public for fear of arrest and imprisonment for contemplating crimes against the state. It is all a tradeoff, but we never decided as a people where we were going to draw a line and how far we were going to let ourselves be pushed. It was
this lack of forethought that drove us into our current state – distrusted and abused at every step by our own elected government, all paid for, dearly, by our own hard-earned tax dollars.
I pray, as this reaches you, that you will consider the necessity of thinking through what you feel is a proper ratio of security to freedom and sticking to it, come rain, snow, bombs, or planes.