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The Right to See You Naked

Mises Daily: Monday, January 18, 2010 by

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Providence, Rhode Island, journalist Froma Harrop is as establishmentarian as they come, and her post-Christmas-Day-terrorist-bombing-attempt column does nothing to alleviate this impression. The title? "To Be Safe Flying, We'd Happily Perform This Strip Tease."

That failed attempt, you see, did not simply exhilarate those on the left and right, who see it as reason to justify further expansions of state power. In Harrop's case, it also brings out her inner exhibitionist.

To Harrop, the "undie" bomber's near success at blowing a hole in the side of an international flight underscores the need for whole-body imaging as a primary screening technique at airports. Regarding these techniques, a Utah congressman said last spring, "You don't have to look at my wife and 8-year-old daughter naked to secure an airplane."

"As matter of fact, you do," counters Harrop. "The very technology that makes [US Rep. Jason] Chaffetz so indignant might have detected the bag of powerful explosives sewn into alleged terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's underwear."

Can we at least emphasize the word "might" in the sentence above? After all, it makes her point somewhat-less absolute. There are probably a myriad of things that could have been done to thwart doe-eyed Nigerians who would otherwise sneak hazards on international, Detroit-bound flights. Firing those who treat terrorist watch lists with less significance than grocery lists might help. Or how about rechampioning the long-lost freedom of association, which would have given private firms like Northwest Airlines the incentive to reject passengers on the basis of whatever metric they deem appropriate?

There are deeper issues that deal with the heart of this matter, but Harrop, in her crusade for forced virtual disrobing, doesn't want to discuss them. One question is whether the government even has the ability to provide security. One no longer needs to invoke the murder rate that exists in any major American city to prove this point. The events of 9/11 suggest as much, as do more recent events such as November's shooting in Fort Hood and last month's kidnappings in Jacksonville, North Carolina, where the federal footprint is quite deep.

Then there is the question of why a well-educated young man, a product of Nigeria's upper class, would be willing to off himself in such a scheme. This does not exactly conform to the Marxist playbook, which argues that only the poor and desperate engage in such actions as part of their membership in the reserve army of the unemployed. Is it possible that representatives of all social classes in those third-world countries we bomb fight back in various ways, including, when necessary, the use of underwear bombs?

Nonetheless, as the shoe bomber's failed attempt to crash an international flight in 2001 means that today we trudge sock-footed through security checkpoints in order to fly in this free country, so does the undie-bomber's failed attempt mean that people like Harrop will sound credible telling us that we need to take off more — much more — in the name of security. She sounds giddy about it, pointing out that the brave new world grants no rights to fathers to protect the modesty of eight-year-old daughters.

The total state claims the right to see you naked. A freer people would demand an end to such nonsense and the policies that perpetuate it.

Harrop should keep her yearnings for strip tease to herself. But one thanks her for providing a teachable moment: Her perception of an overwhelming threat of underwear bombers brings to mind a short passage from Ludwig von Mises's Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War. Mises wrote in 1944,

The advocates of totalitarian control call the attitudes of their opponents negativism. They pretend that while they themselves are demanding the improvement of unsatisfactory conditions, the others are intent upon letting the evils endure. This is to judge all social questions from the viewpoint of narrow-minded bureaucrats. Only to bureaucrats can the idea occur that establishing new offices, promulgating new decrees, and increasing the number of government employees alone can be described as positive and beneficial measures, whereas everything else is passivity and quietism.

I would add that only to the bureaucratic mind would the ideas of Froma Harrop make sense. The next decade will reveal the extent to which the United States has become a nation of bureaucrats.

Happy New Year.