4th Amendment, Anyone?

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety” – Ben Franklin

If you think you do have rights … in the search field for Wikipedia I want you to type in ‘Japanese Americans 1942’ and you’ll find out all about your precious fucking rights” – George Carlin

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” – 4th amendment to the United States Constitution

The right stipulated in the 4th amendment is a right you do not have. If you have traveled by air since January 5th, 1973 (the beginning of mandatory passenger and baggage searches in airports), your 4th amendment right has been violated. This is because, in the eyes of the United States government, your choice to fly means that there is a substantial likelihood that you are a hijacker.

I think this is outrageously ludicrous and stretches the definition of “reasonable” miles beyond the breaking point. No remotely rational person could possibly believe this, and in recent months it has become clear to me that our government does not believe it either.

When my wife and I were coming back from Barcelona in August 2009, her hand cream was confiscated by TSA on arrival in Atlanta because it exceeded the 3.4 ounce container size limit. The TSA agent pretended he was taking it because it was a potential explosive, but he knew perfectly well that it was not.

How do I know this? Because he casually tossed it into a plastic trash container and sent us on our merry way. If he really thought it might be a bomb, shouldn’t he have put it in an explosive-hardened container, cleared everyone from the area, and called in the bomb squad? Shouldn’t he actually have an explosive-hardened container? Shouldn’t we have been detained while it was determined whether or not we were actually carrying explosives?

The TSA, on their web site, state that their searches are subject to the “reasonableness” requirement of the 4th amendment, but never make any attempt to establish that their searches are actually reasonable. Given that they are seizing property that they know is harmless, it is abundantly clear that their searches are not reasonable.

They also state, pathetically, that people can avoid the searches by choosing not to fly. I find this even more difficult to swallow than the searches themselves. In modern society, flying is a necessary mode of travel. When my boss sends me to CA for business, should I tell him to cough up $2000 in mileage reimbursement and give me six days off so I can drive the 5000 miles round trip? Should I tell my wife no more trips abroad? Does that sound reasonable to you?

And where do you draw the line? Would you submit to a search every time you cross a state line because you could avoid the search by never leaving your state? Would you submit to a search every time you cross a city line because you could avoid the search by not leaving your city? Would you submit to a search every time you get in your car because you could avoid the search by walking?

Given the obvious ridiculousness of the whole charade, why are we submitting to this abridgement of our basic rights with almost no protest? The clear answer: fear. We are afraid of hijackers and terrorists, and so we give up our liberty for the sake of security, or sometimes the mere appearance of it. When did we become such cowards?

Our rights consist of what we are willing to stand up and fight for; a cowardly people is an oppressed people, and the instant a right stops being important to us, it ceases to exist.

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6 Responses to 4th Amendment, Anyone?

  1. Hope says:

    It’s pointless and annoying and utterly terrifying all at once. I flew home to NC from VT in 2006, and the VT-based customs in little ol’ zero terrorist *Burlington* went through my bags, slung my laptop around, made me take my strappy sandals off and generally treated me like crap. Was there a bomb in my sandals? I think not. Did I really hate Vermont at that point? Uh-huh. But I’m vastly grateful that my name isn’t Fatimah Al-Mernessi or something, because that would mean a full body pat-down or a cavity search. Shudders. Everyone should remember that we’re all that close to total violation in an airport–our names just have to be on a list, even if we’re toddlers–I recall the 2 year old whose name matched a “watch list name” and couldn’t fly with his family. When will be back to reality as a nation?!

  2. bguppy says:

    That’s one of many instances in an ongoing exercise of what I call “time machine security”, where the government tries to save us from what happened yesterday, usually taking away some freedom in the process.

    I’m glad you’re pissed off about this too – it’s shocking to me how few people seem to have any outrage about it. Most of them seem to be too busy sending each other sheep that don’t exist to bother with inconveniences like the basic rights necessary for a democratic society. Sometimes I wonder if facebook is the new opiate of the masses.

  3. Mike says:

    I actually don’t feel infringed upon when I go through airport security. The reason for this may be tied to my inexorable fear of flight. Still, I’m not sure we reserve the same rights as individuals when we choose to herd ourselves unto a vehicle whose very premise is so fragile, not to mention, can be converted into a cruise-missile by trained and suicidal hands. I think by flying, we are submitting to the airlines right to restrict what will and will not be allowed onto their property (anybody read the story of the little girl who was forced to throw her pet turtle away?). It’s fascist. It’s totalitarian. It’s annoying as hell. Is it necessary? Only if some crazy fuck is trying to get on my plane, or yours, or anyone else’s with a gun or a bottle of something he/she hopes to ignite.
    Regarding the lotion bottle: you’re right. It’s stupid that they would confiscate something they know is not dangerous. That’s the thing with guidelines: they are blind (in theory). They don’t differentiate. The human-beings working TSA are doing their best impressions of robots, and I’m not sure I have an idea of how to do it better.

  4. bguppy says:

    Death by plane crash and/or terrorist attack is a scary prospect, no doubt, but what’s most scary often isn’t what’s most worth being concerned with. I don’t wish to minimize what happened on 9/11, but with its death toll of 2,995, more people die in car accidents every few weeks in the United States, and I don’t hear any clamoring for intrusive security on the highways.

    Another thing that might put the event in perspective: we have transformed the entire world for the worse as a result of this event, and yet, on average 155,000 people die every day. If you were to plot the number of world deaths for every day of 2001 on a graph, 9/11 would barely be a blip.

    Another number: 16,000 children starve to death every day. I don’t see anyone lining up to forfeit their civil rights so that kids can eat.

    The point is, as horrifying as the events of 9/11 and other terrorist attacks have been, our fear of them is grotesquely overblown and causes us to ignore much bigger problems.

    Also, while I believe the airlines have the right to restrict what goes on their property, I don’t believe they have the right to search us en masse in order to do it. The 4th amendment doesn’t specify *who* does the searches, and I believe that means that private entities should have to abide by the same “reasonableness” requirements as public ones.

    My favored solution to this problem is to take the resources we currently allocate toward mass person and baggage inspection and redirect them to intelligence that is designed to find out who the *actual* terrorist suspects are, so that they don’t have to treat us all as one.

    Bruce Schneier makes this point (a little less forcefully than I would like) here:

    He’s a brilliant thinker on the topic of security and is always worth reading, even if you don’t agree with him.

  5. clsguppy says:

    Go get ’em, tiger. 🙂

  6. Hope says:

    Heck yeah, Brian–more people do die in car accidents, and the prevailing attitude towards automotive safety is one of “passive safety” features like airbags, not increased (and more intrusive) testing for actual driving skills or mandatory breathalyzers attached to all our engines. Yet, flying has become an increasingly draconian and surreal world of “security.” Why is that?
    I would argue it’s geopolitics. It’s politically useful to tap into fear, and there is no more dramatic and frightening “fear” moment in our present cultural memory than 9/11. You can get all kinds of legislation passed on that impulse alone–and all kinds of power and money. “Enough power and money to make Solomon blush,” as Eddie Izzard would say.

    What’s more 4th Amendment scary than that TSA agent on autopilot? How about a little thing called a “National Security Letter” (NSL)? Heard of those? Probably not, because whoever receives them (your bank, your library, etc.) is bound by a *lifetime* gag-order upon receipt immediately. When any gov’t official stands behind a podium* and tells you there have been no claims of misuse of the Patriot Act, they are conveniently omitting the fact that no one can publicly claim to have received an NSL that targeted someone unfairly, *without risking a jail sentence because of the lifetime gag order* and that it is incredibly difficult (legally & personally) to get the gag order lifted. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5440211

    * It’s not administration-specific, either. Some clever librarians were putting up signs, “The FBI has not been here yet. Please watch carefully for the removal of this sign.” Eric Holder, the current attorney general, said he would prosecute such signs.

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