Alan Chartock: Being secure in a brave, new world


GREAT BARRINGTON -- OK, let's talk privacy. In the end, it almost always comes down to personal privacy versus personal security. My wife, the lovely Roselle, hates having to take her shoes off at the airport.

I ask her, "Would you rather be on an airplane with a shoe bomber or take off your shoes?"

Our WAMC Roundtable panelists recently discussed this subject and were of differing opinions, to say the least. The always articulate Professor Rosemary Armao seems to believe that personal privacy is primary.

The problem for many people is a sort of "either-or" approach. Some think that in this age of terror there should be no infringement on our personal freedom while others believe that there should be no limits on government surveillance.

They say, "What are you afraid of if you aren't doing anything wrong?" I have always disliked absolutist positions. This is a different world than the one most of us came into and things will change further.

Newark Airport is installing a huge surveillance operation. They tell us that they will maintain and control all the data collected until that time when they are subpoenaed by the government.

Even President Obama seems to be toying with the idea that the government can't be trusted with surveillance information, as evidenced by the NSA scandal, and that a third party should own the data.

In my opinion, that could be dangerous. Someone working for that third party may be tempted to use the data to make a buck, or use it in potentially nefarious ways.

In any event, the question I keep asking is what are we afraid of?

I do understand that there is always the potential for misuse of that data -- just think about J. Edgar Hoover and his potential blackmailing of important public officials. For example, people have been known to walk through airports with someone other than their spouses.

There will always be tension as we search for ways, in a very dangerous world, to protect ourselves while at the same time allowing for maximum protection of our personal privacy.

Airports are potentially dangerous places so authorities are always tweaking the rules. You can't park your car near the entrance. You can't bring any liquids from outside onto the planes. Every so often, someone is chosen at random for a pat-down.

You had better believe that one of the best ways for terrorists to instill fear into the general population is to blow up a plane or cause chaos in an airport. Many of the major threats to airplane safety have been thwarted by vigilant passengers and not airport security. I would cite the shoe bomber as one such example.

I have always had a Plan B in mind. If such a threat occurred in front of me I would think that a tie wrapped around his neck would be one possible defensive weapon, considering the fact that anything I might have had with me like a pocket knife would have been prohibited in carry-on baggage.

I suppose even practicing civil libertarians have to acknowledge that we live in a complicated world. We can't ignore the fact that there are bad people out there who believe they are justified in causing any kind of chaos that they can.

It will almost be impossible to stop determined people from finding yet another way to bring hell into our lives. Some of these misguided folks think that killing themselves in order to take out as many of us as possible is a good strategy. If someone is willing to kill themselves to kill you, they do represent a threat.

El Al Airlines has never had a catastrophe. That goes to prove that there are ways that we can stop these killers but as someone I once knew once said, "You've got to give a little to get a lot."

Alan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and a professor emeritus of
communications at SUNY-Albany.


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