Which do we hate more: terrorists or the government?
Nov 20, 2010

Which do we hate more: terrorists or the government?

It is with a sense of mirth that I watch many pundits on the right talk about the US TSA's installment of full body scanners at airports across the country. There seems to be a conflict between two fairly core aspects of rightwing ideology. On the one hand, you have the core ideal of freedom from government and an Orwellian fear of the government prying into our freedom. On the other hand, you have advocating for a typical hawkish, hardliner stance on combating terrorism. The result is comments that seem to be all over the map as they go back and forth between these two.


There is a rather striking hypocrisy to it all. You have people who were supportive of the Patriot Act, against closing Guantanamo, against trying terrorists in civilian courts, supportive of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, supportive of action in Yemen and Pakistan. All of this part of a hardliner stance against terrorism and if constitutional rights are ignored or hundreds of thousands die then as Albright infamously put it, that is the price we pay.  Yet airport body scanners is where they draw the line? This is the spot where being tough on terrorism goes too far?

The distinction of course is that airport body scanners are felt directly by us. The Patriot Act or military tribunals of terrorists are all things that we think of as not relating to us, not affecting us, and as such are easy to support. When it comes to influencing our actual lives than the hardliner stance on terrorism is forgotten and the anti-government mentality takes over.

Of course, this decision can't and shouldn't be analyzed in terms of either of these idealisms or indeed idealisms at all. The reason is simply that when we make a marginal difference in something, we can't argue for or against marginal differences via appealing to idealisms. Idealisms are not sensitive to small differences. Going from metal detectors, potential light pat downs and scans of all luggage to full body scanners or comprehensive pat downs is a small difference - at least relative to ideological claims. Instead, we have to resort to a pragmatic consideration where we balance the marginal decrease in civil liberties for the marginal increase in security. I.e. does the decrease in frequency of terrorist attacks on planes that results from this policy change overcome the marginal loss in civil liberties? My impression is that it does not. However, even if one disagrees with my pragmatic conclusion, we could hopefully agree that an idealism like "we should have freedom from government"  is not an appropriate argument.

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