IN THE NEWS
As countries slide into bad times, how do people living through them identify the changes for the worse? One sure sign is the proliferation of laws and edicts in which no one believes. Political leaders don't bother to hide the cynical motives behind these directives; the public immediately understands them for what they are. The social contract that justifies government, devolves into, You're lying to me, and I know that you are lying.
In the last few weeks, we've seen two astoundingly cynical, ineffective counterterrorism measures: the new guidelines for carry-on items; and the Department of Homeland Security's list of potential terrorist targets. Since I've been doing more than a little traveling lately, I can say that, in my admittedly unscientific sampling of people at the airport, no one believes that the ban on liquids and gels will block a terrorist attack. Instead, the spontaneous topic of conversation is, Short of stripping naked, where is the logical stopping point for restricting what you can bring onto an airplane?
The new TSA policies have had the reverse effect than intended. Rather than feeling safer at the airport, Americans feel their vulnerability everywhere else. Freeway overpasses, shopping malls, schools, subway stations, train platforms, theme parks—in a big country like the United States, there are no end of places to go, if your goal is to kill a lot of average people, generating anxiety and despair in the process.
However, that's not to say that we should worry about our safety everywhere we go. There are too many public places, and too many ways to conceal a weapon, for Americans to spend their days calculating the possibility that they will die when they pull into the supermarket parking lot.
The DHS' list of potential targets sends the exact opposite message. As The Daily Show hilariously showed a couple of weeks ago, you don't need to be an ace reporter to point out the ridiculousness of the list, simply by going to the near-empty roller rink in Indiana designated a terrorist target.
Of course, no one believes that the list was DHS' sincere effort to parse what might be a terrorist threat. Instead, the list is the offspring of pork barrel politics and the Bush Administration's indifference to the DHS' failures. Similarly, everyone understands the TSA's new carry-on policies as simple ass-covering, not a forward-looking strategy for the terrorist threats that might exist.
How is cynicism at this scale possible, in a country that prides itself on its democratic and constitutional achievements? I'll have a few words to say about that topic later. For now, suffice it to say that the social contract has degenerated to the point I described earlier: You're lying to me, and I know that you are lying.