Washington Fifty years ago William F. Buckley wrote a memorable complaint about the fact that Americans do not complain enough. His point, like most of the points he made during his well-lived life, is, unfortunately, more pertinent than ever. Were he still with us, he would favor awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which he received in 1991, to John Tyner, who, when attempting to board a plane in San Diego, was provoked by some Transportation Security Administration personnel.
When Buckley was asked how he came up with topics for three columns a week, he jauntily replied that the world annoyed him that frequently. The fecundity of the world as an irritant was on display one winter evening in 1960 when Buckley found himself in an insufferably hot car on a New Haven Railroad commuter train from Grand Central Station to his Stamford, Conn., home. Everyone was acutely uncomfortable; no one was complaining.
“In a more virile age, I thought, the passengers would have seized the conductor and strapped him down on a seat over the radiator to share the fate of his patrons.” But he had “nonchalantly walked down the gauntlet of eighty sweating American freemen, and not one of them had asked him to explain why the passengers in that car had been consigned to suffer.”
Buckley, who was gifted at discerning the metaphysical significance of the quotidian, thought he saw civilization tottering on its pedestal. He was not mistaken:
“It isn’t just the commuters, whom we have come to visualize as a supine breed who have got onto the trick of suspending their sensory faculties twice a day while they submit to the creeping dissolution of the railroad industry. It isn’t just they who have given up trying to rectify irrational vexations. It is the American people everywhere.”
Happily, not quite everywhere today. Not anywhere where Tyners are.
When TSA personnel began looking for weapons of mass destruction in Tyner’s underpants, he objected to having his groin patted. A TSA functionary, determined to do his duty pitilessly — his duty is to administer the latest (but surely not the last) wrinkle in the government’s ever-intensifying protection of us — said: “If you’re not comfortable with that, we can escort you back out and you don’t have to fly today.”
Tyner: “I don’t understand how a sexual assault can be made a condition of my flying.”
TSA: “This is not considered a sexual assault.”
Tyner: “It would be if you weren’t the government. ...”
TSA: “Upon buying your ticket you gave up a lot of rights.”
Oh? John Locke, call your office.
The theory — perhaps by now it seems like a quaint anachronism — on which the nation was founded is, or was: Government is instituted to protect pre-existing natural rights essential to the pursuit of happiness. Today, that pursuit often requires flying, which sometimes involves the wanding of 3-year-olds and their equally suspect Teddy bears.
What the TSA is doing is mostly security theater, a pageant to reassure passengers that flying is safe. Reassurance is necessary if commerce is going to flourish, and if we are going to get to grandma’s house on Thursday to give thanks for the Pilgrims and for freedom. If grandma is coming to our house, she may be wanded while barefoot at the airport because democracy — or the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment; anyway, something — requires the amiable nonsense of pretending that no one has the foggiest idea what an actual potential terrorist might look like.
But enough, already. Enough trivializing important values — e.g., air safety — by monomaniacal attempts to maximize them. Disproportion is the common denominator of almost all of life’s absurdities. Automobile safety is important. But attempting to maximize it would begin (but by no means end) with forbidding left turns.
Bureaucracies try to maximize their missions. They can’t help themselves. Adult supervision is required to stand athwart this tendency, yelling “Stop!”
Again, Buckley: “Every year, whether the Republican or the Democratic Party is in office, more and more power drains away from the individual to feed vast reservoirs in far-off places; and we have less and less say about the shape of events which shape our future.”
The average American has regular contact with the federal government at three points — the IRS, the post office and the TSA. Start with that fact if you are formulating a unified field theory to explain the public’s current political mood.
— George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group. firstname.lastname@example.org