A Republic, If We Can Keep It

When I ever do get around to retiring from running the Grand Duchy of Bloodthirstan, I’ll just hang a sign on the gate: “See Mark Steyn”.

He says it better, earlier, and funnier than I ever could. (But you already knew that.)

[T]he government doesn’t build much of anything these days — except for that vast complex five times the size of the Capitol the NSA is throwing up in Utah to house everybody’s data on everything everyone’s ever done with anyone ever.

A few weeks after 9/11, when government was hastily retooling its 1970s hijacking procedures for the new century, I wrote a column for the National Post of Canada and various other publications that, if you’re so interested, is preserved in my anthology The Face of the Tiger. It began by noting the observation of President Bush’s transportation secretary, Norman Mineta, that if “a 70-year-old white woman from Vero Beach, Florida” and “a Muslim young man” were in line to board a flight, he hoped there would be no difference in the scrutiny to which each would be subjected. The TSA was then barely a twinkle in Norm’s eye, and in that long-ago primitive era it would have seemed absurd to people that one day in America it would be entirely routine for wheelchair-bound nonagenarians to remove leg braces before boarding a plane or for kindergartners to stand patiently as three middle-aged latex-gloved officials poke around their genitals. Back then, the idea that everybody is a suspect still seemed slightly crazy. As I wrote in my column, “I’d love to see Norm get his own cop show:

“Captain Mineta, the witness says the serial rapist’s about 5?10? with a thin mustache and a scar down his right cheek.”

“Okay, Sergeant, I want you to pull everyone in.”

“Pardon me?”

“Everyone. Men, women, children. We’ll start in the Bronx and work our way through to Staten Island. What matters here is that we not appear to be looking for people who appear to look like the appearance of the people we’re looking for. There are eight million stories in the Naked City, and I want to hear all of them.”

A decade on, it would be asking too much for the new Norm to be confined to the airport terminal. There are 300 million stories in the Naked Republic, and the NSA hears all of them, 24/7. Even in the wake of a four-figure death toll, with the burial pit still smoking, the formal, visible state could not be honest about the very particular threat it faced, and so in the shadows the unseen state grew remorselessly, the blades of the harvester whirring endlessly but, don’t worry, only for “metadata.” As I wrote in National Review in November 2001, “The bigger you make the government, the more you entrust to it, the more powers you give it to nose around the citizenry’s bank accounts, and phone calls, and e-mails, and favorite Internet porn sites, the more you’ll enfeeble it with the siren song of the soft target. The Mounties will no longer get their man, they’ll get you instead. Frankly, it’s a lot easier.” As the IRS scandal reminds us, you have to have a touchingly naïve view of government to believe that the 99.9999 percent of “metadata” entirely irrelevant to terrorism will not be put to some use, sooner or later.

I discovered Steyn soon after 9/11, when my disillusion with liberalism was but a green shoot. He was Miracle-Gro for my burgeoning conservative transformation.

First of all, who even remembers Norman Mineta—or can tell him apart from Leon Panetta? Did Panetta just slip into to Mineta’s size 9 1/2 Ferragamos when no one was looking? Does it matter?

All -etas look alike!

If you’ve read even one post of mine you know my anger and despair (and most of the other stages of grief) over our flaccid response to terrorism. We can’t name the enemy—can’t even call him an enemy—though he names us and so calls us daily. That “Muslim young man” of whom Mineta (or do I mean…?) is so enamored is statistically unlikely to be any threat—but he is infinitely more threatening than the “a 70-year-old white woman from Vero Beach, Florida”. So she gets the body cavity search while he gets a pillow and a magazine. (“The latest issue of Inspire? Why, yes we do.”)

Unless and until Aggie and I take up arms (and that’s not how we roll), our “metadata” is irrelevant to national security. Same goes for Buck, Kimmi, Kerri, Norm, Leon, Ted, and Alice. Worse than irrelevant, such searches and seizures are statistical noise, drowning out whispered plots, discreet nods and winks. Worse than irrelevant and counterproductive, they are carried out without probable cause, therefore definitively unconstitutional.

We have suspended the Constitution so as not to give offense. But offense to whom? That “young Muslim man” would presumably like to take off and land safely just like everyone else. No, the people we fear offending are ourselves, at least those who are easily offended. To spin the old sports cliche, the best defense is to give offense.

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