Fear and Control: The TSA Case
There's an old joke about a man who, as he enters a psychiatrist's office, stops, extends his arms forward, and claps three times. He then turns to the right, repeats the clapping, and continues to the right until he has come all the way around.
The psychiatrist asks him, "What are you doing?"
He replies, "This will keep elephants away."
The psychiatrist tells him that they are in the middle of the city and on the 20th floor and that he can assure him that there are no elephants within at least 10 miles.
The man responds, "Effective, isn't it?"
Now another one. A man and his family go through an airport TSA checkpoint and are directed to the image scanner. The father says that he is not willing to subject himself and his family to the screening because of the possible danger of radiation and the very clear naked pictures it takes. He and his family are directed to an agent who is preparing to do a full-body pat down.
The father says to the agent, "How can you justify subjecting so many people to this kind of humiliation? You will be touching my wife, my children, and me in places that my wife and I have considered inappropriate to touch our children since they were toilet trained. Especially," he adds, "when there is a far greater chance of dying from a bathtub fall than from a terrorist attack."
The agent responds, "Effective, isn't it?"
Is the situation really this insane? Is forcing millions of people to take off their shoes and throw away their creams, water, and nail clippers just a futile gesture like clapping your hands to keep elephants away?
Let's look at another analysis of the terrorist threat. If a bank robber found that security at banks had been tightened up to the point where it had become too risky to keep robbing them, would he abandon his criminal ways and apply for an honest job, or would he just switch to home invasions or robbing stores? Because getting on a plane is tougher these days, don't you think that a terrorist would just try something else? Are there terrorist bombs, fires, and shootings going on around the country on a daily basis?
The constant exaggeration of the dangers is like having a hypnotist converting a mild fear in someone into a full-blown phobia. Government and the media bombard us with examples of real or often just imagined threats and expand them so that they become as big as our worst nightmares. Hyperbole and imminent, lurking threats are such effective tools to get people to do what you want that we are all hard pressed not to use them. As more of us buy into an overblown story, it takes on a life of its own and often becomes the accepted truth.
Repeating these stories is effective for the same reason the "big lie" works now just as well as it did when Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels refined it. It is because of the way our minds are constructed. These techniques work because we humans are all story-making machines. When we are given a conclusion convincingly enough or authoritatively enough (and throw in a little fear of the unknown), we look for a narrative that makes it true. We grab strands of information that may be true, false, or made up of other narratives and construct a storyline that justifies the conclusions given to us. Just watch how small kids come up with explanations for things they don't understand.
As the brilliant physicist Thomas Kuhn discovered, scientists are just as likely to fall under the spell of their own narratives as anyone else. So much so that once they believe in a particular theory they will notice the most miniscule piece of evidence that confirms it, yet they will not see — or barely notice — huge contradictions right in front of them.
When forced to confront contradictions, we humans can come up with some of the most creative, roundabout stories to explain them away. So, as you see, all that is needed is a believable conclusion, and our minds do the rest.
This is why we obediently put up with actions that are patently ridiculous, like subjecting ourselves to fondling by the TSA. We accept the conclusion that it is for our own protection and work backward by filling in the justifications.
A more accurate narrative is that any terrorist with the most basic intelligence will know the security procedures and find a way to circumvent or avoid them. More importantly, total security is an illusion: it would require ever-increasing intrusions into our private affairs by people who could become, in real terms, much more of a threat than terrorists.
Is this just hyperbole on my part? No. We have very precise and enumerated rights, as defined by the constitution, written to preserve our liberty, and the only way to advance security is to chip away more and more of these rights.
The current uproar about the procedures is helping to drive a wedge in the current narrative, but unless a more principled one is presented, we will still have the we-need-to-be-protected-from-the-bogeymen account running the show. We can influence the dialogue by bringing up words like freedom, rights, and courage to counteract protection and terror, but they are loaded words that create different narratives for each person.
So, what do we do with these overly creative minds of ours? Ludwig von Mises had the right idea. You start with very basic, irrefutable, a priori1 statements and create your stories from there, making sure they can always be justified by your initial, already-determined-to-be-undeniable base. Just as with mathematical axioms and proofs, you build your understanding of bigger concepts from the base up. That, to me, is the only way you can be immune from the ever-changing winds of public opinion and faddish notions.
Mises did this by starting with a very simple statement: humans act — they take action. From there he proceeded to write a very rigorous, 881-page magnum opus, Human Action, that expanded, ever more, the concept until it became a full-blown and as close to bulletproof model of economics as has ever been presented. He expanded it into a philosophy of freedom and an understanding of human nature, free commerce, and government influence. The beauty of what he wrote is that the main foundational structures on which it all rested are just a few, and they are quite easy to understand and confirm.
Over the years, those who have studied Mises and espoused his philosophy have been watching, aghast, the incredibly unsupportable narratives that have been going in and out of fashion. Yet it has been hard to pierce the bubbles of these overinflated and unsustainable stories. Eventually they burst from their own weight only to be replaced by other equally flawed ones. And so it goes in the world of mental illusions. There is hope though.
It is said that soon after his enlightenment the Buddha passed a man on the road who was struck by the Buddha's extraordinary radiance and peaceful presence. The man stopped and asked, "My friend, what are you? Are you a celestial being or a god?"
"No," said the Buddha.
"Well, then, are you some kind of magician or wizard?"
Again the Buddha answered, "No."
"Are you a man?"
"Well, my friend, then what are you?"
The Buddha replied, "I am awake."2
I know very little about Buddha but I do believe that Mises was as close to awake as you can be with regard to a clear, unvarnished understanding of his subject.
This determination to wake up from the fog of your own misconceptions (believed to be truisms) is what I consider one of the highest callings there is. Have a solid philosophy that you can hone and clearly defend, and it will become one of your main legacies, one that will live on in your family and the people you touch. Imbue yourself with the noble goal of searching for truth and waking up. You'll be amazed at how differently from others you will understand the world around you — and how comfortable a solid understanding feels.
Start with something simple and proceed from there. I started by exploring the idea that we own our bodies and our minds, but it wasn't until I found Mises's line of thinking that I was able to make much headway. Also, the resources I found at Mises.org were indispensable.
Start from any point you want but just start. You will never look back.
- 1. For those of you who come from the positivistic scientific method and have trouble with a priori anything, just consider them as statements that have yet to be falsified. These statements are self-evident enough that a small adjustment in your interpretation of them would, in all likelihood, add to and reduce very little from their conclusions. If you follow the arguments, you may find that what does get falsified are your own positivistic beliefs.
- 2. From The Teachings of Buddha (edited by Jack Kornfield), p. viii, and adapted from The Dhammapada, translated by Thomas Byrom.