The TSA and people of privilege

by Sommer Gentry on January 20, 2013


It’s become a cliché among those who support the TSA’s unprecedented intrusions into and under the clothing of innocent travelers: “Flying is a privilege, not a right.”

This cliché is contradicted by numerous court rulings. In Kent v. Dulles (357 US 116), the Supreme Court wrote these words, which appear three times in the decision:

The right to travel is a part of the ‘liberty’ of which a citizen cannot be deprived without the due process of law of the Fifth Amendment.

The cliché is also contradicted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration, written in the hope of preventing the Holocaust’s horrors from ever happening again, states in Article 13 that “(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. (2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”

Current U.S. Code addresses air travel specifically. In 49 U.S.C. § 40103, “Sovereignty and use of airspace,” the Code specifies that “A citizen of the United States has a public right of transit through the navigable airspace.”

Anyone who trots out the tired catchphrase suggesting that flying is a privilege should remember the history of the distinction between privileges and rights. While reading “When Benjamin Franklin Met the Reverend Whitefield,” I came across a passage describing the genesis of the American Revolution:

It was a question of privileges versus rights. The language of rights was new, and it was important that the Parliament understand it. The first colonists had believed that liberty lay in the privileges that royal grants, charters, and other documents conferred . . . A settler could claim certain so-called liberties – the right to follow a trade or vote in an election – as a privilege granted by law or custom . . . But every privilege could be rescinded by the same power that granted it. Even ownership of land in the colonies could be revoked, for the privilege of private property in the king’s American domains was not absolute. Thus, petitions to the Crown invariably referred to the colonists’ ‘privileges.’

In quite contrary fashion, the American protestors had come to think of liberty as a natural quality of life, a right, that government could not constrain or deny. For the protestors, guarantees of fair trial before local juries, barriers to illegal searches and seizes, and private property ownership were all rights that government could not diminish, and that included taking property by taxation without the consent of the owners. In the continuing constitutional convention that would be the revolutionary era, American political theorists even began to assume that one of the foundational purposes of government was to protect rights rather than to grant and define privileges.

Our country exists because people demanded their rights, and were no longer groveling before a king begging for privileges.

People who say flying is a privilege are invoking the days of kings and unlimited government power, approving of such arbitrary authority. I don’t need the government’s permission to travel, and to do so by any means I choose.

To the TSA’s employees and apologists, I declare: I will not beg a petty tyrant like John Pistole for the “privilege” of flying. I demand the right to fly, and without strangers putting their hands down my pants or fondling my genitals. I demand that the TSA stop trampling our human rights.

(Photo: Daquella manera/Flickr Creative Commons)

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