TSA Screenings, Civil Liberties, Racial Profiling, and Everything Else

“They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” – Benjamin Franklin

The above quote has been, in all fairness, over quoted to the point it really has no more value or meaning. The fact that such a quote is often overlooked and ignored, or simply said as a platitude, is quite a shame because such a truth is a dire warning. The point that Franklin was making was that if we give up our liberty for our security, then what exactly are we trying to secure? Our lives? What are our lives worth if we are not able to live as humans should live? And that is the ultimate point Franklin is making, that we miss; it is better to be at risk for death, but live free, than to have absolute security, but nothing to live for.

The above has been heavily influenced by the recent actions of the TSA, engaging in “enhanced security” measures, which are truly akin to sexual molestation. While any reasonable citizen would understand the need for metal detectors at airports or the need for serious searches in some cases, at some point liberty must trump security. In fact, the recent TSA measures have outraged quite a few people, causing some to cry out against the TSA, but such cries are seemingly falling upon deaf ears.

What is even more frustrating is when we consider that police seem to validate the TSA’s actions. We can look to the case of Steven Bierfeldt where simply asking a question to both a TSA agent and St. Louis police officer about his rights in his given situation was met with threats to be turned over to the DEA and FBI. Rather than inform Mr. Bierfeldt of his rights, they attempted to intimidate him into cooperation. Now, the ACLU filed suit against the Department of Homeland Security on behalf of Mr. Bierfeldt, which caused the TSA to change its practices to only deal with the safety of passengers and not auxiliary findings (which led to the ACLU dropping the case pending TSA compliance).

While Mr. Bierfeldt’s complaint could seem annoying (not answering where he got the money from, which he didn’t have a legal obligation to answer), the recent borderline molestations are over the top. In the hopes of being secure, we’ve given up any reason to protect our security. What is the point of flying “safely” if your daughter must face being sexually exposed or you have to be face it yourself? Even if you’re told what to expect, does that make it any better? Those who would sacrifice essential liberty…Walking through a metal detector, taking my shoes off, or even having a wand passed over me does not violate my “essential liberty.” Each is a minor inconvenience, but one that I (and many others) tolerate for the sake of security. But the right to avoid being detained simply because I am inquisitive as to my rights, the right to avoid sexual assault, or to be exposed to TSA screeners (especially when the image can be turned from a negative into a color with relative ease [link contains nudity produced by TSA]) are essential liberties. These are essential liberties and I, personally, would rather run the risk of a terrorist getting on that aircraft and killing me than give up those liberties. After all, how is life worth living if I do not have the liberties to enjoy being a free-will agent? 

A More Troubling Thought

Reviewing the recent TSA controversy and my own feelings on it, I was haunted by a thought that wreaks of ignorance and regret; isn’t this what our nation’s minorities have faced for years? Right now in the airport security line the line for “reasonable suspicion” is that you’re flying, not exactly the highest bar. Aside from the humiliation and psychological damage caused by the TSA’s procedures, one is left feeling like a suspect, like one has done something wrong. We’re often left trying to prove our innocence rather than be proven guilty. Yet, this is exactly what many minorities have faced for decades in America while the white majority generally said, “Ah yes, but it’s needed for safety.”

Though I’ve always been against profiling, I always viewed it as a civil rights issue and never truly personally experienced it. I would advocate that I still don’t know what it is to be profiled for my race, nor will I ever know that feeling (at least not in the same way that blacks do, or Latinos, or any other race).

Often times black people or Latinos are pulled over, accosted by officers, questioned, and subjected to other forms of interrogation simply because of the color of their skin. If they are uncooperative (which they have a Constitutional right to be at points) they are immediately treated as a suspect and rounded up. The police, in such instances, often find a reason to arrest such people. This is not an indict against the police (as they have been trained to do this, and officers of different colors act in this way), but rather an indict against our culture and how blind we’ve been.

The police have a job to ensure the peace of the citizens. Keeping the peace is quite a charge and, truth be told, contradictory to civil liberties. In order to find a perpetrator, sometimes innocent civilians will have their rights temporarily limited in order to rule them out as a suspect (at least in an ideal world). This is why the 4th Amendment specifies that unreasonable search and seizures shall not be granted. Obviously if a perpetrator’s description is a tall white male who is heavy-set, blue eyed, shaved head, and a beard driving a green four-door sedan, pulling me over and asking me questions would be reasonable. It is an unfortunate circumstance, but my civil rights would face a temporary suspension as the police worked to rule me out as a suspect. But if the description is, “A white male,” the police would lose the advantage for me to suspend my rights (in theory at least).

Unfortunately, the white populace has often ignored this when cases of DWB (driving while black/brown) popped up. We consoled ourselves with the thought that in order to catch criminals we had to allow police to do their job by racially profiling criminals. But this has led to everything from minor inconveniences to minorities to major civil liberties issues. How many black men have undergone a police pat-down because they refused to let a police officer inspect the victim’s car; such a refusal isn’t an admission of guilt or acting suspicious, it’s simply having a heightened sense of privacy and exercising one’s Constitutional right. Often times, however, minorities (and now white people too) are being told that if they have nothing to hide, they should cooperate.

Of course, such a line of reasoning is wrong on so many levels. One is not legally obligated to cooperate with the police, especially if one’s innocence is on the line. You could accidentally make yourself a suspect or make it appear that you are guilty by cooperating and saying the wrong thing, which would violate your Constitutional right against self-incrimination. But where has all the outrage been from the white community over how minorities have been treated in this country?

While such interrogation practices and searches are necessary, they are only necessary when done in the right circumstances. When I think of all my non-white friends, I can’t think of any of them who say they haven’t been racially profiled. Every single one of them say they have been racially profiled at some point, singled out simply because of the color of their skin.

Such practices are dehumanizing and often leave the victims with a sense of hopelessness; for all these years we’ve attempted to gain equal civil liberties and while that may be so on paper, in practice minorities are still treated differently. This robs victims of so much; it robs them of a sense of pride, a sense of innocence, a sense of security, and much more.

From the TSA to Arizona

One of the most recent examples of violating people’s civil rights would be Arizona’s controversial immigration law (which other states are almost certain to adopt). While I believe the law was well intentioned and did all it could to avoid racial profiling, it inevitably is wrong. While Arizona is facing a drastically increasing crime rate due to Mexican drug smuggling and the Federal Government is abdicating its role as the protector of US borders, such problems don’t justify the interruption of civilian rights.

Assume for one second that a Mexican-born US citizen locked his keys in his car along with his ID. As he attempts to break into his own car, a police car comes around. In Arizona, the Mexican-born US citizen is already facing an uphill battle. Again, while the law is understandable in light of Arizona’s problems, it also disadvantages a certain segment of US citizens, namely those who aren’t white.

As a side note, to enforce the law, Arizona has been opening up border-crossing stations hundreds of miles into US land, far from the border. These are random stops and searches and seizures; as you go through the patrol your car can be pulled to the side and they can check your ID, for the simple fact that your car was on the road. Again, while I understand that such a procedure is put in place to stop drug smuggling and illegal immigration, such an action reeks of the in-State checks of the USSR or Nazi Germany. Though I am not attempting to draw a comparison or accuse our government of engaging in fascism, having an ID check with no regard to probable cause forces one to immediately think of the comparison.

The Solution?

Unfortunately, in our politically correct world we often look at issues superficially. With the TSA we don’t want to offend Muslims or Arabs, so we target everyone. With police we don’t want to offend minorities, so we target everyone. In Arizona we don’t want to offend Latinos, so we target everyone. The solution under political correctness is to violate everyone’s rights. This is the wrong approach. The fact is, no group should be facing such scrutiny. Rather than equally violating everyone’s rights, we ought to make sure no one’s rights are violated.

At the same time, the TSA does need to secure us, the police need to keep the peace, and Arizona (as well as other states) need to curb the rates of drug and human trafficking. As I stated earlier in this article, oftentimes the enforcement of the law contradicts the idea of civil liberties. This is why minor infringements are and should be tolerated; such infringements are sometimes necessary. But the essential liberties should never be violated. A person should never be detained for being uncooperative unless there is valid reason to suspect the person of a crime (that reason being separate to the person being uncooperative). A person shouldn’t have to show his ID in order to avoid police scrutiny, which treats every person as a suspect; the person (more often than not the minority person) is guilty until proven innocent. A suspect until there is enough evidence to clear away suspicion. The presumption of innocence no longer applies. While some may say this only applies to the court to establish the prosecutor’s burden of proof, it should also apply to police investigations. Being black or brown shouldn’t be enough reason to pull someone over. Being an airline passenger shouldn’t be enough cause to subject someone to sexual humiliation. Speaking Spanish shouldn’t cast doubt onto the citizenship or “legality” of a person.

The solution is quite simple; follow the Constitution. Our draconian practices have been in place for years, yet crime has gotten worse. Thus, such profiling and harsh tactics have obviously not worked up to this point. Applying such practices across the board, regardless of race, doesn’t seem to solve anything either. If we have to give up our liberties in order to achieve a security that seems to be eroding no matter what we do then what have we accomplished? Even if security were achieved, to what end could we really value this security? Yes, you are alive, but your every movement is tracked, you’re faced to constant humiliating security checks, and must constantly worry about being pulled over or being questioned by an authority figure. Is that really a life worth living?

There are multiple horror stories from former Soviet bloc countries of parents having a huge disconnect with their children. In the early to mid 90’s there was a huge crisis of orphans in Eastern Europe, simply because parents had abandoned them. The workers in the orphanages would often leave the children alone, causing the children to grow up closed off and alone. Recently, articles have been written exploring the idea that the constant scrutiny by the government (for the sake of security) is what caused such a disconnect; by being dehumanized the people tended to act in an inhumane manner. They lacked trust, they lacked the ability to love on a deeper level, all because of the constant treatment they faced.

Is that a life worth living? Wouldn’t it be better to struggle against gangs, against drug-traffickers, or against terrorists, but maintain our freedom and dignity? If we give up our humanity to have security, then we’ve given up any right to be secure.

To use an analogy, imagine someone has a steak. This isn’t just any steak, it’s the best steak the person has ever had. The person keeps going back to the restaurant to get the steak. One day, however, a fly lands on the steak, which just ruins it for the person because he knows the fly regurgitated on the steak. So the next time he comes in, he’s more careful when eating his steak; he keeps an eye out, shoos away any flies that get near, but alas, one finally makes it through and lands on his steak. The next time he asks the waiter to put up a candle that puts off a smell that chases flies away; even though the smell is offensive to humans as well, it usually keeps flies away. However, the ceiling fan brushes aside the odor for a bit and in that moment a fly swarms onto the steak. The next time the man orders the fan turned off, but even though he tolerates a horrible smell and stagnate air, a fly still manages to find its way to the man’s steak. Each time he goes in he adds new things to the steak to prevent flies from getting to it; chemicals to ward off the flies, cooking the steak differently, and finally encasing the steak in glass. In the end, he’s able to prevent the flies from getting to the steak, but he can’t even eat the steak, and were he able to he wouldn’t be able to enjoy it because the taste would be so altered.

Our rights are the same way. If we must give them up in order to protect them, then our security isn’t worth it. If I must give away the reason I live in order to protect my life, then it would be better for me to die. At least if I die, I die a free man who has lived as a human. If I live, but lack my freedom, then I am dehumanized and therefore I’m living a life not worth living.

We must go beyond the TSA and attack such actions on any populace, if for no other reason than to prevent such actions spreading to the general populace. When the majority is silent about the oppression of the minority, such oppression always spreads to the majority. The German pastor Martin Niemöller famously wrote:

They came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me and by that time no one was left to speak up.

If we don’t speak up for the minority now (as we haven’t in the past), if we don’t speak up for the oppressed, then we can expect to be oppressed ourselves.

The Christian View

For Christians, this issue can be quite perplexing. On one hand we are called to obey the Government, but on the other hand what do we do when the agents of the Government violate the law established by the Government? Such a contradiction makes the issue of submission a convoluted one. Are we called to submit to the agents of the Government or the laws of the Government?

From a Christian perspective, if the law supports the dignity of humans (which the US law does) then we are obligated to the law above the agent. It is the agent of the Government, not the Government we are rebelling against and he is rebelling against the law. Of course, such rebellious attitudes must be reasonable; refusing to take one’s shoes off at the airport or pull over when the police car is behind you would be highly unreasonable. But refusing to allow your child to be molested by a government agent or to face an interrogation because you forgot your ID is adhering to the ultimate law in the US and you are within your rights as a Christian to do so.

More importantly, Christians need to reevaluate our reaction – or I should say, lack of reaction – to racial profiling that entraps our non-white brothers and sisters. The act of racial profiling is a serious issue in America and the Christian community is almost silent on it. In our more urban churches it is simply an accepted part of life. In our suburban churches we view such actions as necessary for the security of the greater whole.

But how are such attitudes congruent with the second greatest commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. As the recent TSA actions have shown, very few people enjoy having their rights violated in the name of security. If we don’t enjoy being targeted for arbitrary reasons, why should we assume others enjoy it?

More importantly, the status quo’s mentality is more utilitarian in its approach; if a few must suffer for the greater good, then so be it. If not utilitarian, the view is pragmatic by saying x and y will get us z (security), so the ends justify the means. Christianity is decidedly anti-utilitarian and anti-pragmatic. The anthropological view of man within Christianity is that of an individual who has been formed in the image of God. Though everyone is linked by a common nature, as persons we are individuals and are subsequently to be treated as individuals.

Such a Christian view demands that we look at people individually, meaning that we should not bring any biases or prejudices to any person. Even if every white person we’ve known has been a thief, that doesn’t mean we can assume every white person we meet is a thief. Each person is different, irrespective of his race. As Christians, we must promote treating people as individuals, meaning everyone gets a fair shake when it comes to essential liberties. If we don’t turn to the humanizing force of Christian ethics, we will be left with the dehumanization of an entire nation. We may be secure, but to what end? We must look at each person as a person, a person endowed with certain rights. If we should lose some security in recognizing the rights of individuals then so be it; it is better to honor the law of Christ by treating others in love and as humans than to abdicate our trust in God by giving into fear and dehumanizing those made in His image.