On Christmas day, a young woman whom I will call Susan Lopez Garcia was scheduled to fly from Philadelphia to Bogota, Colombia, accompanied by her husband, her sister and her parents.
Eighteen months earlier, she had legally changed her name by adding her husband's last name to her birth name of Susan Lopez. Her ticket had been issued in her married name, which is also the name on her driver's license; however, her passport is still in her maiden name.
The airline refused to allow her to board the plane. According to the heightened security procedures the airline employs when the nation's terror alert has been raised to "orange," it will not allow someone to board an international flight when the passenger's passport is issued in a different name from the passenger's ticket, even when there is an obviously innocuous explanation for the discrepancy, as there was in this case.
This might all be written off by apologists for our current national hysteria about terrorism as the sort of bureaucratic snafu that is the price of eternal vigilance. Yet there is a curious twist in this little vignette about the high cost of freedom: The airline told Susan she could board the plane, as long as she (or rather her father) agreed to fork over more than $1,000 for a one-way walkup ticket, which would be issued in the name on her passport.
How this proposed transaction would neutralize the security risk she supposedly posed remains a mystery. But it does drive home one of the reasons the war on terrorism will not end in the foreseeable future: because it's in the interest of too many people that it continue indefinitely. Besides creating occasions for such lucrative procedures as that employed by the airline, the war on terrorism has created an immense bureaucracy that, like all bureaucracies, is dedicating a large part of its resources to justifying its continued existence.
What, for example, justifies a Terror Alert Status of "high" as opposed to "elevated," or "guarded" as opposed to "low?" What does it mean for Americans to be at high risk for terrorism? Does it mean that we're facing a risk comparable to that posed to us by automobile accidents? (The average American has about a one in 240 chance of dying in a car accident.) Is terrorism as big a threat to Americans as, say, cigarette smoking? (Smoking kills about 9,000 Americans every week). Or is a "high" risk of terrorism comparable to the risk we face from mad cow disease, i.e., an almost completely imaginary risk, created by a combination of media hysteria and the international vegan conspiracy?
Our Department of Homeland Security doesn't have answers to such questions. It's only taking orders from our political leaders, who long ago discovered that few things are more conducive to pushing dubious policy objectives than declaring wars that can never end, because they are designed to last forever.
The irony of this is that for a generation now, American foreign policy has been haunted by the ghost of Vietnam - a war that America lost because neither the war's goals nor what would constitute achieving those goals was ever satisfactorily defined. Since then, our political elites have engaged in a series of metaphorical Vietnams against, among other things, poverty, crime, drugs and terrorism.
None of these wars can end, because none of them has been defined in a manner that makes either victory, or, as Richard Nixon put it, "peace with honor," achievable. Yet that, as our more sophisticated warmongers no doubt recognize, is precisely the point.
Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado
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