My father fathered the way they did on black-and-white TV, though not so much Ward Cleaver as Ralph Kramden (if he and Alice had had kids). He went to work, Mom stayed home. Every night we ate dinner together, but I don’t remember Dad ever saying much. When he did, it was so unusual that it stuck with you.
I was a latecomer, a product of the more permissive 1960s. That was the Vietnam era, a time when people weren’t feeling so good about their government. One night at dinner — I was maybe 10 or 12 years old — I was relating the story of a discussion at school about the Pledge of Allegiance. I opined that it was rather foolish to pledge allegiance to “a piece of cloth on a stick.” I was a precocious kid in a turbulent time, what did you expect? Dad, a World War II veteran, looked up, fixed his gaze on me and said, “A lot of people died defending that piece of cloth on a stick.”
A dozen words, give or take. It may have been the only civics lesson he ever gave me, but I’ve carried it with me for 40-some years. I suspect I’ll carry it to my grave.
I’m thinking about Dad while I wait in line at the airport. They’re ordering an older man to stand on the mat with his arms extended so they can pat him down. A blue-shirted agent struts like the cock of the walk. Whenever I watch this I seethe.
Today I seethe out loud.
A 20-something traveler in line near me perks up. “Dude, why so angry?” he asks. Yes, he called me dude. I start to talk about idiocy of the liquids rule, then the body scanners and the pat downs. My fellow traveler interrupts, “Dude, chill! It’s no big deal.”
I fear my head will explode.
Here’s the thing: I think it is a big deal. Not because I’m some kind of prude who is afraid to have his junk touched; not because I have anything to hide. Just because.
Just because “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” The Fourth Amendment. Pure poetry.
When the odious Patriot Act was first enacted a decade ago some of us screamed that the government had no business looking at phone records and bank records without a search warrant. Overwhelmed with fear of another 9/11, many people disagreed. Maybe it was best, they reasoned, to stand back and let the feds give everybody’s checkbook and cell phone the once-over, just to make sure there were no calls or cash going to crazed jihadists.
I quoted Ben Franklin — we all quoted Ben Franklin: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” America thought about that, did some mental calculus, and decided that maybe some liberties weren’t really so essential. I remember someone telling a reporter, “I don’t send money to al Qaeda. Go ahead and look at my bank account if you want, I got nothing to hide.”
I look again at the young man in line near me. Since he was 12 years old he’s been doing the same calculus, making the liberty-for-security trade-off. He’s used to it. No big deal. Just chill.
The whole notion of privacy must seem strange to him. He came of age in a time when we carry our cell phones to the dinner table. Sure, it can be annoying, but it’s really valuable when someone needs us right away. He came of age in a time when there are cameras on every street corner, which has really cut down on vandalism (not). He came of age in a time when the supermarket knows what kind of breakfast cereal I buy, which is really convenient because they send me a coupon whenever Apple Jacks is on sale. Considering all the benefits, are we really giving up that much?
That’s when I hear Dad’s voice: “A lot of people died defending that piece of cloth on a stick.” I would add, “and those words on parchment.”
And suddenly I can articulate what’s been gnawing at me all this time:
It may be old-fashioned, it may be quaint, it may not be of use or of interest to you, but a lot of people thought the 4th Amendment was pretty damned important at one time, and goddamn it, dude, whatever you or the TSA trolls on the message boards may think, it’s not yours to give away. And it sure as hell isn’t John Pistole’s to take. So don’t tell me to chill out. It is a big deal. It’s one huge deal. And if I sound pissed off then at least you’re paying attention.
I do not consent to the scanners. I do not consent to the pat downs. For now, I may have to endure them if I want to fly, but you’ll trample my civil rights without my consent, thank you. In the meantime, while we wait for the courts or the Congress to redress this case of monumental government malfeasance, there’s one thing I can adjudicate all by myself, and that’s the right of you, my carefree traveling companion, to speak on my behalf.
Let me be clear: neither you nor any blogger nor editorial writer nor pundit should presume to tell me that it’s no big deal.
I’ll decide what’s a big deal to me.
Post your location on Foursquare if you like. Play out the dissolution of your marriage on Facebook. Tweet your every thought: obtuse, profound, poetic, or profane. And if you’d like to invite the government to read your emails, I can’t stop you. It’s your choice to give up your privacy, but don’t think for a second that you have permission to bargain away the right of the people to be secure in their homes and papers and persons.
I think that might have been what Dad was trying to say. Call it a piece of cloth on a stick if you like, and feel free not to recite the words if that’s important to you. But recognize that a whole lot of us might respectfully disagree.
There’s one more thing. I said a moment ago that this was a liberty-for-security trade-off.
It’s a liberty-for-nothing trade-off. The scanners don’t work. The patdowns are pointless. The screeners aren’t screened. No one knows what’s in the cargo hold. You want to strip us of the 4th Amendment — hell, you want to strip us naked — and what you’ve offered in exchange is security theater. Now I like the theater, but a civil right is too high a ticket price for this particular show. It’s too high for a season pass. It’s too high for lifetime access to every performance in every theater on Broadway.
Why so angry, Dude? Because you so casually bargained away a right that my father and your father and their parents and their parents’ parents fought to preserve.
Why so angry? Because you’re too obtuse to even realize what you’ve done.
Why so angry? Because now you’re trying to compel me to do the same.
Why so angry? Because we almost let you succeed, without demanding so much as a coupon for Apple Jacks out of the deal.