By John W. Whitehead
The transition to a police state will not come about with a dramatic coup d’etat, with battering rams and marauding militia. As we have experienced first-hand in recent years, it will creep in softly, one violation at a time, until suddenly you find yourself being subjected to random patdowns and security sweeps during your morning commute to work or quick trip to the shopping mall.
Perhaps you have yet to experience the particular thrill, and I use that word loosely, of being manhandled by government agents, having your personal possessions pawed through, and your activities and associations scrutinized. If so, not to worry. It’s only a matter of time before more and more Americans will experience such a military task force knocking at their door. Only, chances are that it won’t be a knock, and they might not even be at home when government agents decide to “investigate” them. Indeed, as increasing numbers of Americans are discovering, these so-called “soft target” security inspections are taking place whenever and wherever the government deems appropriate, at random times and places, and without needing the justification of a particular threat. Worse, not only is this happening with the blessing of the Obama administration but at its urging.
What I’m describing–something that was once limited to authoritarian regimes–is only possible thanks to an unofficial rewriting of the Fourth Amendment by the courts that essentially does away with any distinctions over what is “reasonable” when it comes to searches and seizures by government agents. The rationale, of course, is that anything is “reasonable” in the war on terrorism. And by constantly pushing the envelope and testing the limits of what Americans will tolerate, the government is thus able to ratchet up the level of intrusiveness that Americans consider reasonable.
The latest test of our tolerance comes from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the same agency that continues to make headlines with its intrusive airport searches of travelers. Thanks to TSA Chief John Pistole’s determination to “take the TSA to the next level,” there will soon be no place safe from the TSA’s groping searches. Only this time, the “ritualized humiliation” is being meted out by the Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) task forces, comprised of federal air marshals, surface transportation security inspectors, transportation security officers, behavior detection officers and explosive detection canine teams.
At a cost of $30 million in 2009, VIPR relies on 25 teams of agents, in addition to assistance from local law enforcement agencies as well as immigration agents. And as a sign of where things are headed, Pistole, himself a former FBI agent, wants to turn the TSA into a “national-security, counterterrorism organization, fully integrated into U.S. government efforts.” To accomplish this, Pistole has requested funding for an additional 12 teams for fiscal year 2012, bringing VIPR’s operating budget close to $110 million.
VIPR is the first major step in the government’s effort to secure so-called “soft” targets such as malls, stadiums, bridges, etc. In fact, some security experts predict that checkpoints and screening stations will eventually be established at all soft targets, such as department stores, restaurants, and schools. Given the virtually limitless number of potential soft targets vulnerable to terrorist attack, subjection to intrusive pat-downs and full-body imaging will become an integral component of everyday life in the United States. As Jim Harper of the Cato Institute observed, “The natural illogic of VIPR stings is that terrorism can strike anywhere, so VIPR teams should search anywhere.”
For now, under the pretext of protecting the nation’s infrastructure (roads, mass transit systems, water and power supplies, telecommunications systems, and so on) against criminal or terrorist attacks, these VIPR teams are being deployed to do random security sweeps of nexuses of transportation, including ports, railway and bus stations, airports, ferries and subways. VIPR teams are also being deployed to elevate the security presence at certain special events such as the Democratic National Convention.
Incredibly, in the absence of any viable threat, VIPR teams–roving SWAT teams, with no need for a warrant–have conducted 8,000 such searches in public places over the past year. These raids, conducted at taxpayer expense on average Americans going about their normal, day-to-day business, run the gamut from the ridiculous to the abusive.
The question that must be asked, of course, is who exactly is the TSA trying to target and intimidate? Not would-be terrorists, given that scattershot pat-down stings are unlikely to apprehend or deter terrorists. In light of the fact that average citizens are the ones receiving the brunt of the TSA’s efforts, it stands to reason that we’ve become public enemy number one. And how does the TSA deal with perceived threats? Its motto, posted at the TSA’s air marshal training center headquarters in the wake of 9/11, is particularly telling: “Dominate. Intimidate. Control.”
Those three words effectively sum up the manner in which the government now relates to its citizens, making a travesty of every democratic ideal our representatives spout so glibly and reinforcing the specter of the police state. After all, no government that truly respects or values its citizens would subject them to such intrusive, dehumanizing, demoralizing, suspicionless searches. Yet by taking the TSA’s airport screenings nationwide with VIPR and inserting the type of abusive authoritarianism already present in airports into countless other sectors of American life, the government is expanding the physical and psychological scope of the police state apparatus.
VIPR activities epitomize exactly the kind of farcical security theater the government has come to favor through its use of coded color alerts and other largely superficial yet meaningless maneuvers. It’s an ingenious plan: the incremental ratcheting-up of intrusive searches (VIPR searches are not yet widespread), combined with the gradual rollout of VIPR teams permits the normalization of TSA activities while inciting minimal resistance, thereby muting dissent and enabling the ultimate implementation of totalitarian-style authoritarianism. And you can be sure that once VIPR has accrued a sufficient bureaucracy, it will be virtually impossible to eradicate.
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about the Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.