Whistling past the graveyard

by Michael Smith

July 25, 2005

Maintaining a global empire is a costly business. No surprises there. But who knew that we would have to give up, not just our liberties, but our ability to reason, in order to keep the top nation on top?

We've reached the point now where the New York City police department is seriously proposing to search subway passengers. It's hard to remember how crazy this would have seemed just a few years ago, but since 2001 we've had a lot of practice at accepting the irrational.

It started with ID checking. After September 11, you suddenly couldn't enter a Manhattan office building without showing ID. Of course the September 11 hijackers all had perfectly good ID.

More recently, the Port Authority closed the pedestrian path on the George Washington Bridge, for "security" reasons, from midnight to 6 am. Meanwhile, of course, the stream of trucks, cars and SUVs thunders across the bridge 24-7, unimpeded and uninspected. Any one of these could be loaded with a lot more high explosive than a pedestrian's backpack.

There are ominous signs on the Henry Hudson bridge prohibiting photography. I've taken several pictures of them while driving by. My pictures, of course, aren't nearly as good as Google's high-resolution satellite photos of the structure from above, and the Circle Line provides an excellent vantage point for shots of the underpinnings.

There's no way any of these measures can possibly increase our "security." So why do them?

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly recently blurted out the dismal truth, in connection with the latest project of searching subway riders. "I see it ... as giving some comfort to the riding public," he said, according to a report in this newspaper.

The word "comfort" has a kindly ring. It brings to mind images of Barcaloungers and meat loaf. But in this context it's not quite accurate. What Commissioner Kelly is really offering is not comfort, but collective delusion. He knows -- as anybody knows who has thought about the subject at all -- that there is literally no defense for a society like ours against the kind of tactics that Qaeda and similar groups have evolved.

Consider the subway search scheme. What proportion of riders entering the subway can the police hope to search? Ten percent? That's surely a high estimate, but let's use it for the sake of argument. That's 450,000 searches every weekday. Say it takes a minute to do a search. That's 7500 cop-hours a day, or a full 8-hour day for almost 1,000 cops, costing somewhere between a quarter-million and a half-million dollars a day, over a hundred million dollars a year. All this to increase Qaeda's relatively modest cost of doing business by at most ten percent.

We often speak of trading liberty for safety. But in fact we are trading liberty for empty gestures that confer no safety at all: a rabbit's foot, a pinch of salt over the shoulder, a lucky horseshoe nailed above the door.

Conservative writers on American foreign policy have begun to acknowledge what used to be unmentionable: we are running an empire, they say with commendable candor, and we might as well admit it.

What nobody, conservative or liberal, wants to mention is that the empire business has changed. Noble Romans strolling in the Forum never had to fear reprisals from the Gauls, and the Mahdi had no way of striking Piccadilly Circus. But modern transport and communications -- the very things that make our global empire possible -- also make it vulnerable. Or rather, they make us ordinary citizens vulnerable - inescapably vulnerable, no matter how many rabbits' feet we carry. Our leaders have bunkers they can go to, but the rest of us have to go to work.

Faced with the consequences of junior partnership in the American empire, the Spaniards recently, and intelligently, decided to opt out. It remains to be seen whether the British will display the same good sense, although the recent election returns were an encouraging sign.

And what about us? When will we wake up and realize there is no safety in "security"? That the costs of empire are bound to be paid, in dollars and in blood, by us ordinary citizens? Until we recognize this basic truth, it's a downward spiral: less liberty, more violence perpetrated in our name and repaid in our cities, and -- not the least of evils - a relentless erosion of basic common sense.

Essays and reflections -- contents