Editorial: In the name of security, a culture of fear

Last modified: 8/9/2013 12:23:29 AM
In BearCat nation, every community’s police force has an armored personnel carrier and weaponry designed for war. In bus stations and outside civic centers, citizens are stopped and searched by poorly trailed and minimally educated pseudo-police, some of whom are armed. Those who refuse to agree to be searched in the name of the war on terror are denied entrance or barred from boarding a train or bus.

This is a dystopian prospect more frightening than the thought of another Boston Marathon bombing or even a 9/11 attack, but it’s becoming disturbingly real. The city of Concord is seeking to join the growing number of communities that have accepted homeland security grants to purchase military hardware. And on Tuesday, The New York Times reported on the latest efforts of the Transportation Security Administration, the outfit that makes airline passengers remove their belts and shoes, to step up their patrols of train stations, sports arenas and the like, all in the name of homeland security.

The TSA teams are known as Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response squads or VIPRs, an acronym appropriate for a comic book but not, we think, for federal employees who stage random, unannounced sweeps of public transportation sites. A VIPR team recently swept Union Station in Washington D.C., to the shock of passengers and the frustration of members of Congress who believe that the TSA is simultaneously overreaching and ineffectual. The agency’s director, John Pistole, routinely declines to say whether his agents, who conducted 9,300 unannounced sweeps last year, have actually found explosives or prevented a terrorist attack with their efforts citing – what else? – national security.

We urge New Hampshire’s congressional delegation to take a hard look at the TSA’s enormous expansion and what looks less like mission creep than an attempt to create a national police force. They should also support an effort by Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, to prevent the TSA from becoming a defacto national force. Her “Stop TSA’s Reach in Policy Act” or STRIP – an acronym befitting a response to VIPRs – would ban TSA employees who have not completed federal law enforcement officer training from wearing police-like uniforms and badges that lead citizens to believe that they are not really low-paid airport screeners with less training than a small-town cop, but real police officers.

The TSA has swelled from 16,500 employees in 2001 to more than 65,000 according to a congressional report. It has cost taxpayers $57 billion to ostensibly secure the nation’s airports and the agency’s quest to add more VIPR teams to check subways, truck weigh stations, civic centers, bus stations and more will cost billions more, with no proof that society is any safer for it.

The agency believes that its mission to prevent terrorism trumps the Fourth Amendment’s requirement that searches be reasonable and linked to probable cause. Courts have ruled that when it comes to air travel, given a plane’s vulnerability, that’s true. But where are the limits? Is it reasonable to allow federal agents to refuse to allow people to take a train home from work if they decline to allow a search of their briefcase or purse? We don’t believe so.

Something more than money will be lost if the TSA’s expansionism isn’t thwarted. Gone will be the freedom to come and go un-monitored and un-harassed. Yesterday, writing in The Wall Street Journal, journalist Ted Koppel warned of the cost of government’s growing mania for security. “We have created an economy of fear, an industry of fear, a national psychology of fear. Al-Qaida could never have achieved that on its own. We have inflicted it on ourselves.”

We have, and now we must turn back before a common greeting becomes, “Your papers please.”


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