Monday, July 25, 2005


In light of the July 7th bombing in London, public transit authorities in New York City have initiated random bag searches of commuters using their subway system. Similar strategies have been considered or employed in other major cities in the United States, including Washington D.C. I am not an authority in a position to effectively evaluate the efficacy of these efforts, but I don’t really think that this kind of program could actually prevent a determined bomber from carrying out their plan. Even a bomb detonated at the baggage check point would be pretty dramatic. Whether or not these searches have an impact on the future of security, or at least perceived security, remains to be seen. I am more disturbed by the attitude of some of the citizens of New York interviewed at the scene of the random searches and also by the reactions of callers to radio phone-in shows here in my own city, Toronto.
Watching the responses of commuters passing through the police spot-checks, there were three basic points of view. The first, and to their credit I think most common, was an attitude of cooperation and understanding, This is to be expected in a city of twenty-odd million that still has the image of death from the sky burned into their collective consciousness. These folks believe that the any and all measures must be taken to ensure the safety of the subway riders.
The second group, slightly smaller than the first approaches the inconvenience of the random searches as a necessary intrusion into their lives in the interest of serving a greater good. They may express reluctance or dismay at having to open their briefcase or backpack to an inspecting policeman, but they are willing to go along with the scheme.
The third group represented in those U.S. broadcasts was the smallest in number, but the most disturbing in its message. They were the rabid civil libertarians. Those of a sort that bristle at the mere hint of some force in authority interfering in any way with their free and easy rose-coloured perambulations through life. If it was not quite outrage that they expressed at having to suffer the indignity of allowing the forces of the establishment rifle through the granola bars and trail mix in their hemp fanny packs, it was certainly a form of open contempt. It is this attitude that I heard echoed in the calls to my local talk radio station.
Now, let me take a second to say that I fall into the second group. I am not going to be very enthusiastic about having to open up my bag for inspection just to ride the lousy transit system. I don’t have to like it to understand the reasons behind it. It might not help the situation, but I don’t really see the harm in it. Now, whereas the first group seems a trifle too eager to cast aside their concern for their personal freedom, they do so out of some sense of patriotism or social responsibility, however misguided. The third group reacts to the inspections as though it is a direct attack on them personally and is a symptom of the ongoing attempts of The Establishment to erode their civil rights. No argument on Earth will convince them that any such action is not just another spoke in the great wheel that is the conspiracy to crush individualism.
Many, and probably most of the callers to the talk shows here in Toronto seem ready to accept the same kind of random checks as were performed in New York. If there is a qualifier, it is that they would be more accepting in the face of a direct threat to the city. This in a city where the Public Transit Commissioner stated that the, “terrorists would have to find us on a map first.” Oh, yes, no unfounded confidence there at all.
The callers that were more troubling were the ones that resist any such measures. They claimed that it would be unnecessary and that the police would use these searches as a fishing expedition to entrap people for anything and everything whether terrorist-related or not. This kind of speciousness always attracts the argument, “If you don’t have anything to hide, you have nothing to fear,” which only serves to further agitate the agitpropists.
My concern is with this watchdog attitude to the perceived efforts to undermine the lifestyle enjoyed by North Americans generally and U.S. citizens in particular. If the same dogged persistence to minute changes had been applied to the steady shift toward permissiveness in our culture, we might not even have come to be in a position to challenge our own freedoms. The decadence and waste of the American way of life is certainly seen as a threat to other cultures around the world. We aren’t just exporting Coca-Cola and blue jeans. We are shipping promiscuity and irresponsibility along with every Britney Spears CD.
Freedom is something to be desired. I cannot imagine that there is any individual or culture that strives toward subservience. Not consciously, anyway. The problem with the flavour of freedom grown in the United States is that it is not seasoned with the salt of responsibility. A responsible population protects its freedom by balancing individual rights against the individual’s responsibility to society. When the American president Thomas Jefferson wasn’t sleeping with his slaves, he made a profound statement that, like many profound statements, has been used many times and in many ways to justify all kinds of behaviour both good and bad. That statement was, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”
Vigilance does not mean simply looking outward for threats to freedom. It also requires an internalized vigilance that preserves societal values. Change is healthy and there is always room for debate, but as a community we must learn to recognize the value in preserving a foundation of solid values that ensure a consistent and reliably progressive future. Does that mean that we should disallow homosexuality and gay marriage? Should we restrict freedom of expression? Impose curfews? Not at all. Freedom is indispensable to foment cultural growth and development. Humans must feel that they are permitted to take risks in the name of art or science. Our internal vigilance simply requires that we are prepared to take ownership of our actions. We must stand in the face of scrutiny and say clearly, “Yes, that was me. I did that, and I did it because… ” As long as our actions are informed by our sense of obligation to the greater community we should have nothing to fear as long as the commitment to that obligation is mutual.
I don’t really think it is possible to build a society like that. At least, not until after the revolution. Or the civil war. Or World War III. The toothpaste that is the selfish individualistic society of North America has been squeezed out of the tube. Probably from the middle. It cannot easily be put back in.

(I was going to go on and on about crackin’ out the Jackboots and the Broken Window theory of law enforcement, but I got called away for something else and I lost my momentum. I should really write a draft before I start these things… oh, well.)