Fighting for Civilization


In war, it is widely understood that dehumanizing the enemy makes it much easier to kill, brutalize and torture them. What happens when a government begins to dehumanize the citizens that live under it? What should those citizens expect in the future from such a government?

We are currently confronted with a government that is deliberately dehumanizing us, for whatever purposes its agents have in mind, and a population that largely goes along with this, believing its master’s claims that it is “for our own good.” That passengers are finally beginning to resist this is good news. That some TSA employees are beginning to feel shamed by comments from these passengers is also good. They should be ashamed of what they are doing.

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But just as the capacity for evil is present in every one of us, so is the capacity for good, and I have to believe that among the ranks of those “mindless jackbooted thugs” are at least a few decent people who just needed a job and took what they could get; who weren’t raised to question authority but who might if pressed; and who in some part of their minds want to think of themselves as the kind of people who would do the right thing.

As activists for liberty, we would do well to remember this. For the problems that we face run very deep – deeper than the institution of government itself. If we were to eliminate the state entirely, or indeed as many predict, if the state collapses of its own dead weight, we will be no better off as long as the vast majority of the people around us still believe in the ethic of might making right; of coercive violence as a legitimate tool for accomplishing one’s will and for organizing society.

Government schools, and even many non-government schools, have done a wonderful job of inculcating these values in most of the people who make up our society. To believe that violence is never justified except in response to violence is widely perceived as wacky and “impractical.” This is what we are up against. Not a monolithic state, but a monolithic belief system that will remain in place even beneath the rubble that once was the state, ready to rebuild.

I personally will not take my children on another flight in this country until things have changed drastically. This is partly out of fear for their safety – and it’s not the terrorists I’m worried about here – but even more because I do not want them to grow up thinking that this kind of behavior, this way of interacting with other human beings, is “normal” or in any way acceptable. I want my children to grow up to have the skills and the sensibilities that will allow them to live in a civilized society, to treat others with respect and to expect to be treated with respect.

In this spirit, I am glad that this week's Opt-Out Day was uneventful. In a rare show of anticipatory analysis it seems the TSA toned down its security theater in an effort to avoid confrontation and render the protest a non-event. (Would that the TSA should employ its heretofore latent strategizing skills towards its actual mandate of securing the safety of air travelers.) There were numerous reports from around the country of the full-body scanners simply having been shut off on one of the busiest travel days of the year – a de facto admission that these machines are not in fact a necessary or even important part of preventing terrorist attacks.

It is important that any future demonstrations against the abuses of the TSA and other arms of the government remain peaceful. If it has not been clear in the past that those of us who oppose government intrusiveness and abuse held the moral high ground, it is abundantly so now. It would be a shame to lose even a little of that ground and it is crucial that — in stark contrast to the system we oppose — we remain civil and civilized. Yes, the TSA agents are responsible for their own actions and should be held accountable for them. Yes, most of them seem willing to follow orders even when those orders involve the systematic humiliation of people who have harmed no-one. But it is critical that we not make the same mistake they make in dehumanizing the u201Cenemy.u201D The real enemies are the people who have put this system in place, and the bad ideas that give it popular support, not the foot soldiers. I believe that fighting for freedom and fighting for civilization — for civilized relationships between individuals — are very nearly the same thing. With that in mind, those of us who care about civilization must not become what we seek to oppose. We must not dismiss their humanity as they have been dismissing ours.

November 26, 2010