Is Competent Authoritarianism Too Much to Ask For?

Rest easy, America: Your great Republic may be troubled by the threat of terrorism, migrants crossing your borders, and a level of gun-fuelled violent crime that would make other countries weep (or at least pass substantial gun control legislation), but the threat of dead people flying on airplanes is contained. Probably.

As it turns out, the no-fly list maintained by the National Counterterrorism Center includes a provision that dead people can be added to America's most consistently ridiculous weapon in the War on Terror. The problem, you see, is that some terrorists may use other people's names and try to board flights. As reported by The Intercept, this very possibility means the dead must be included in this particular terror watch.

And sure, terrorists are crafty. But it's worth noting that the actual hijackers who committed the attacks of September 11, 2001, used their own names extensively (per those America-hating fifth columnists of the 9/11 Commission), and yet, the US intelligence apparatus missed them. Defenders of the no-fly list, naturally, say that American counterterrorism efforts are now good enough that people of ill intent have to be subtler than they did in the September 10 world.

What really comes through in The Intercept's reporting is not the one-off apparent silliness of some measures, but the systemic ad-hockery of it all. Evidence isn't necessary—suspicion will do. The bar to be described as a terrorist is laughably broad: any act that's “dangerous to property and intended to influence government policy through intimidation” counts. If you squinted, you could probably kick some of Wall Street's leading lights off every plane in the country by that standard, though somehow I suspect the boys at Goldman will do just fine.

Meanwhile, even being on the no-fly list is no guarantee of actually, you know, not being allowed to fly.

While the list may be an absurdity, let’s be charitable and allow that it is at the very least well-intentioned and not actively killing people. Not so for capital punishment in Arizona, where the process of killing those whom the state has declared must die is being snarled by the fact that the Grand Canyon State can't get its hands on the drugs to make it happen, and so we get the obscenity of a man taking two hours to die by lethal injection as administrators try out new combinations of lethal chemicals.

Capital punishment may be the oldest form security theatre of all: there's no evidence it actually works by any standard other than vengeance, and even the ancients understood that people who transgress our laws usually don't consider the consequences of being caught before they commit a particular act. But it makes us feel better, so it persists even in places where people probably know better, in their heart of hearts.

The best solution would be for us to not live in a world where voters reward policymakers who come up with senselessly authoritarian measures that rob people of their rights and dignity. Imagine a world where two-year-olds aren't frisked because their name sounds like some bad person's second cousin thrice removed, or where the state manages to kill someone with some dispatch. In short, if we have to live in a world where these people make the rules, could we at least get some competent authoritarians?

Image via Redjar / Flickr