In comments, Izar asks why we feel that having policemen check up on us is an affront to our liberty. He also asks that we call him a “serf of the totalitarian state machine,” so I shall.
I suppose I might feel differently if, regularly, people around me were being murdered by terrorists. But the happy truth is that both attempted and successful terrorism are incredibly rare events in the United States. I am far more likely to be killed by an idiot yacking on his cell phone while changing lanes than I am to be killed by a bomb. Given the ease of access to guns, explosives and the like, this is probably due to effective action by police and intelligence agencies. I do wonder where the court cases are. Further, the effectiveness of random, limited bag searches is highly questionable.
My concerns center around the cost of surveillance. I mean more than the fiscal costs–also spiritual and societal.
The fiscal costs of checking bags everywhere is huge. In Israel, it makes sense because of the imminent threat, and also because if you don’t check bags, people will feel insecure (scared) and shop elsewhere. So if we’re not voting substantially more money to the police, I’d prefer to see them enforcing traffic laws over checking bags. Also, the rarity of bombings in the US will drive the checkers to look for other things (drugs, evolution textbooks, pictures of Mohammed Atta being carried by a professor doing research into terrorism.) They’ll find things to find to make themselves feel useful.
This isn’t intended as a slam against those doing the job. Dedicated people hate feeling useless, and so they’ll look for things, other than bombs, to find, so that at the end of the year, they will not have found nothing. As I understand things, had you searched every single bag of every rider of every metro system in the United States last year, you would have found exactly no bombs. It’s very hard to do a job like that.
The spiritual and societal costs come when people are being watched constantly. Rather than doing things that people expect will make them happy, people will filter and color their decisions based on what a cop might think. To resist social pressure in making decisions is very difficult. To resist that pressure when it is literally embodied in an armed officer of the state is even harder. When those officers are trained to exploit the natural obedience to authority that Milgram demonstrated, it is even harder.
And so, the intrusive presence of the police creates an aggressive pressure to confirm. To not do certain things. What things? I don’t know. I suspect that Steve Mann is having lots of problems today. Enough to discourage anyone else from exploring that space. But what I do know is that all ideas are born new. They are experimented with, and explored. A prime value of liberty is that free societies invent and create more new faster than centrally planned or controlled societies. That’s been a strength. And no, police checking bags will not, by itself, change that. But liberty is easy to erode, and hard to rebuild.
So can I say what the cost of searching a bag will be? Yes. It will be some clever inventor who can’t bring his invention to a critical meeting because he’s stopped and searched by the police. We’ll never know what that invention is, because bad luck has prevented us from seeing it. Maybe its a new bomb detector. A way to clean up pollution. A cure for cancer. The pages of the great American novel scattered accidentally to the winds.
All to prevent the zero metro bombings that occurred last year in the United States. Of course, no one had ever crashed an airplane into a building before, either. But the actions that we take must be consummate with the risks, effective, and cost-effective.
PS to Izar: is a Totalitarian State Machine like a finite state machine, only without any decision points?