On April 3, the First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals will hear an appeal for a lawsuit against the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) filed by two Harvard law students in 2010 claiming that their Fourth Amendment rights were violated by "nude body scanners" and "enhanced pat-downs." The First Circuit is also allowing Freedom to Travel USA, an anti-TSA advocacy group, to make an appearance and oral arguments.
A victory on the side of the two students, Jeffrey Redfern and Anant Pradhan, would definitely be a win for civil liberties and the Bill of Rights. But even if, however, the lawsuits are struck down, this case will help continue to highlight and expose one of the most pervasive institutions of government abuse that exists in America.
This case alone is just one of many that the Freedom to Travel USA, Redfern, and Pradhan have helped bring to the public's attention. They have put pressure on the TSA for not disclosing enough information about the capability of its scanners and attacking them for their veil of secrecy and dismissive nature towards worries over the health effects.
While some may defend the TSA as supposedly "necessary" for security and many others may acquiesce to their civil liberties violations to go along with the crowd and not raise a fuss, the TSA is truly one of the most vivid examples of the cold, cruel nature of government power. Every time I have had the unfortunate experience of waiting in an airport (and now, even taking the train or bus), I see Orwell's nightmares staring back at me: the latex gloves, the hideous uniforms, the omnipresent voice-overs, the sheep-like lines, the arrogance of undeserved authority. It truly is the purgatory of the national-security state.
One could easily write an entire book detailing the outrages and crimes perpetrated by the TSA, and many Americans are no doubt well aware of them or have experienced them directly themselves. There are cases of toddlers and 85-year-old women being searched and humiliated; private property confiscated from passengers; millions scanned with radiation and photographs taken and stored in a database. Perhaps most egregious of all, are the amount of convicted pedophiles and child molesters that have somehow earned a TSA badge.
The growth of TSA also exemplifies a point made by economist Robert Higgs. Higgs, in his classic work, Crisis and Leviathan, describes what he calls a "ratchet effect" that perpetuates the costs and increases in government power. Whenever there is a crisis, real or imagined, the government claims new authority, creates agencies, and taxes and transfers wealth. After the crisis is over, the authority may shrink a bit, but never is reduced to the extent that it was before.
Unfortunately, the "crisis" that is used to justify the TSA — "the war on terror" — is open-ended, perpetual, and is amplified by a foreign policy of drone warfare, black-op death squads, subsidizing dictators and economic sanctions that breed terrorism worldwide. The predictable boomeranging of an interventionist foreign policy abroad is then used to justify domestic interventionism in the form of TSA domestically.
What makes this specific TSA lawsuit that much more interesting is that fact that Freedom to Travel USA includes "very, very conservative people and Occupy arrestees" as supporters. Usually the bipartisan consensus consists of the authoritarian right and left colluding to expand power and restrict liberty. But much like the grassroots swell that arose from Senator Rand Paul's anti-drone filibuster, this may unite the populist left and right in another worthy cause.
That's why this Wednesday's appeal hearing is so important. Not because it will turn the Department of Homeland Security's lights off the next day (though one can hope!), but because at the very least it will add to the growing lists of public grievances that are piling up against the TSA, giving Americans fewer and fewer excuses to stay silent in the face of abusive state power.