There is something wrong, seriously wrong, with a country that makes a watchdog into the national mascot. But we like sheep sat last night, watching 60 Minutes and the unseemly chest-thumping of Drug Enforcement Agents who had managed to capture Viktor Bout, the so-called "merchant of death," and sometime arms supplier to the United States when we don't want to get caught with our fingerprints on a weapon. Why not just throw these dogs a bone rather than make them into celebrities for a day?
"DEA agents live for the hunt," a lumbering Michael Braun told a repoter. Braun looked like a retired linemen for a Division III football team. The former chief of DEA operations stared into the camera. I suppose we are all supposed to feel reassured that this mastiff of a man could hold the scent of an international arms dealer. But I looked at Braun and his eyes were looking back at me. If DEA agents live for the hunt, what do TSA agents live for: the grab? And when will that grab be of my crotch as I seek to board an airplane, or, changing the locale ever so slightly, seek to enter a public place?
We are becoming a surveillance society, and lionizing law enforcement officers on national news shows strikes me as a craven sign of the times.
I recall once encountering a DEA agent in the basement of a federal court building. I was heading to a courtroom after a stop at the cafeteria. The agent rounded a corner with a shotgun in hand. The gun was, I am sure, unloaded; it had what appeared to be an evidence tag hanging from its trigger lock. Our eyes met, and the agent began to level the gun in my direction. We both laughed.
Weeks before I had skewered the agent on the witness stand. When he was done, and the jury had left the room, he glared at me. "Don't ever do that to me again," he said. "What?"," I asked. "Make me look like an idiot," he said. In truth, he had helped me along considerably, but I did not tell him that. When we met in the basement of the courthouse, he with a gun in his hand, I knew at once I was on his turf. It was uncomfortable, even if only for a moment.
I thought of the agent last night while I watched his boss preen for the camera. And then I thought of Plato's Republic and airport ass-grabbing. It is a dangerous thing to give power to the wrong sorts of people.
Plato conceived of a republic governed by philosopher kings. Yet even where reason goverened, he understood that the passions have their place. A republic is composed of all sorts of folks. To help sort them out, Plato relied upon a device scholars call the allegory of the metals. A republic can be dividied into three sorts of people. Philosophers reflect gold; these folks are capable of conceiving large and just goals. To them goes the task of leadership. But we also need guardians, spirited folks who can be pointed in the right direction by those possessed of better reasoning ability. These folks have souls of silver; they are our spirited guardians. And finally, there are the rest of we workaday drones, tumbling along with souls of bronze and incapable seeing beyond our own interests and goals. All three metals are necessary; all three souls populate a republic.
The DEA and TSA agents are our guardians. They are infused with a chest-thumping sort of honor and pride. Point them in the right direction and watch them go. When I think of my border collies, I think of the DEA. I can train my dog to run in any direction on command. The dog cares not toward what it runs and where it runs. It is just following orders. Like Michael Braun and his buddies, the dogs "live for the hunt." I just wouldn't ask the dog to decide what was worth chasing, any more than I would turn the keys to the republic over to some nitwit with a gun and an overblown love of the chase.
But we are doing just that. We've decided that the airports must now be more secure. So we have turned them over to scarecly trained men and women and have given them authority to tell us to disrobe in public, grope and fondle our private parts, and then threaten us with arrest and law suits when we don't behave like sheep and bleat "thank you" for their efforts to herd us. In TSA-speak, we are all potential "passengers of death." Imagine the accolades and television appearances that will fall to the line agent who someday finds a firecracker stuffed between the butt cheecks of an airline passenger?
I don't mind passing through metal detectors at airports. I pass through them daily as an occupational hazard of going to court each day. But I do mind a culture of control, a place where guard dogs are made into celebrities and I am expected to exclaim "good dog" as my leg grows damp after being sprayed by some over-zealous fool with a badge and a few weeks training.
Is Viktor Bout now in custody? Yes? But frankly, I hadn't much noticed or cared until the DEA was lionized on 60 Minutes. Now I do care. The DEA "lives for the hunt"? That hardly reassures. Tomorrow they and their TSA buddies will most likely be hunting for me. These lawmen and women play on the fears terror inspires to take control of ever larger spheres of our lives. They are the front line of the war on terror, all right. But they are too easily turned against us. And we the sheep are letting them do it.