I agree fully with the recent recommendation by journalist, author, and US Transhumanist Party presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan to establish fast-track security lanes in airports, enabling declared atheists to avoid wasteful, humiliating, and time-consuming security procedures ostensibly designed to ferret out potential terrorists. The rationale behind Istvan’s recommendation is straightforward: since the motivation for virtually every plane hijacking has been some manner of religious fundamentalism, it is time to recognize that the probability of an atheist perpetrating such a terrible act is negligible and spare atheists the stigma and inconvenience of invasive screenings. Indeed, even the argument of certain religious critics of atheism that “there are no atheists in foxholes” can be used to bolster Istvan’s proposal. If it is indeed the case that a lack of a belief in a deity or an afterlife leads to a greater reluctance to risk one’s own life in battle for some ostensibly “higher” ideal, then this could be expected to translate to an even greater reluctance to perpetrate plane hijackings, suicide bombings, or other self-sacrificial atrocities, which lack even the blessing that political authorities bestow upon organized warfare.
Of course, it is also the case that most religious people would never perpetrate acts of terrorism, and it would be desirable to include in Istvan’s fast-track process any particular types of religious adherents for whom the perpetration of wanton murder for ideological objectives would be similarly inconceivable. Jainism, for instance, upholds nonviolence toward all living beings, as do some interpretations of Buddhism. Various Christian denominations throughout history – Quakers, Mennonites, and certain Anglicans – have been pacifistic as well. In addition to anyone who professes these beliefs, all people who can demonstrate that they are opposed to war and political violence in general should be exempted from airport screenings as well.
But we can, and should, be even more expansive in determining eligibility for fast-track security lanes. For instance, the probability of a two-year-old toddler, a 70-year-old grandmother, or a visibly afflicted cancer patient seeking to perpetrate an act of terrorism is just as negligible as that of an atheist or a pacifist. Screening people of those demographics – and many others – is equally pointless. It is similarly inconceivable that people with high-profile public lives – celebrities, businesspeople, holders of political office – would perpetrate plane hijackings, and yet the current airport “security” procedures apply to them all. One could, with some deliberation, arrive at tens of other attributes that would preclude their possessors from being terrorist threats. In progressively filtering out more and more people as having virtually no probability of committing mass attacks on civilians, it would be possible to rapidly restore liberty and convenience to virtually all airline passengers. Furthermore, this more expansive clearance from suspicion should apply not just with regard to airport screenings, but also with regard to any surveillance of a person’s activities. The logical end result would be to roll back both “security” screenings by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and mass surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA) until each of these processes is focused solely on perhaps a few hundred genuine suspects while leaving the rest of us alone to live and travel in peace. Or, perhaps better yet, we should start with the age-old presumption of free societies: that an individual is deemed innocent unless he or she has shown evidence of guilt. So, instead of developing an array of characteristics that would enable people to opt out of detailed scrutiny, the system should be designed to only surveil an individual if there is probable cause and a strong reason to suspect criminal intent on the part of that specific individual. In short, we would return to the libertarian and classical liberal approach to issues of security.
Even if the detection and thwarting of terrorists were one’s sole goal, it would be logical to support as many valid methods as possible for narrowing the scope of one’s focus toward those who might pose genuine threats. The less time and effort are spent screening and surveilling completely innocent people, the more resources can be directed toward pursuing and thwarting actual wrongdoers.
And yet nobody seeking to fly today is safe from intrusive scrutiny, and the political class will take neither Istvan’s more limited recommendation nor my more expansive one seriously. Why is it that, in contemporary America, whenever somebody does something sufficiently terrible to generate headlines, procedures are deployed to ensnare everybody in a web of ceaseless suspicion, humiliation, and moral outrage? When a handful of fanatics hijack planes, destroy buildings, and murder civilians, the vast majority of civilians, who resemble the victims far more than the perpetrators, nonetheless become the principal targets of spying, prying, groping, and expropriation. Some libertarians will make the argument, not to be discounted, that the genuine purpose of the mass surveillance and screenings is not to catch terrorists, but rather to instill submissive attitudes in the general population, rendering more pliable those who have been acculturated to inconvenience for inconvenience’s sake, just because those in authority ordered it. Yet such a nefarious motive could not be the sole sustaining force behind persistent mass surveillance and humiliation, as most people do not have an interest in subjugation for the sake of subjugation, and enough people of good conscience would eventually unite against it and overturn its exercise. Another mindset, which I will call perverse egalitarianism, unfortunately afflicts even many people of generally good intentions. It is the prevalence of this perverse egalitarianism that enables the perpetration of mass outrages to persist.
Perverse egalitarianism, essentially, upholds the equality of outcomes above the nature of those outcomes. To a perverse egalitarian, it is more important to prevent some people from receiving more favorable treatments, resources, or prerogatives than others, than it is to expand the total scope of opportunities available for improving people’s lives. The perverse egalitarian mindset holds that, unless everybody is able to get something favorable, nobody should have it.
For those who value “equality” – however defined – there are two essential ways to achieve it – one, by uplifting those who are less well-off so that they are able to enjoy what those who are better off already enjoy; the other, by depriving those who are currently better off of their advantages and prerogatives. From a moral standpoint, these two types of egalitarianism cannot be farther apart; the first seeks to improve the lives of some, whereas the second seeks to degrade the lives of others. The first type of egalitarianism – the uplifting form – is admirable in its desire to improve lives, but also more difficult to realize. Beneficial qualities in life do not magically appear but often require the generation of real wealth from previously unavailable sources. Through technological and economic progress, the uplifting form of egalitarianism has a potential to succeed, although, paradoxically, it can best emerge by tolerating the natural inequalities associated with a market economy. Free enterprise will generate tremendous wealth for some, which in turn will enable vast numbers of others to achieve more modest prosperity and emerge out of dire poverty. The most economically and societally unequal societies are the most authoritarian and primitive, in which an entrenched caste of rulers controls virtually all the advantages and resources, while the rest of the population lives in squalor. Often, those are the very same societies that embrace “leveling” and redistributive policies in the name of achieving equality. As Milton and Rose Friedman famously wrote in Free to Choose, “A society that puts equality – in the sense of equality of outcome – ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their own interests. On the other hand, a society that puts freedom first will, as a happy by-product, end up with both greater freedom and greater equality.”
But perverse egalitarianism is much easier to implement than uplifting egalitarianism. Indeed, it is much easier to destroy than to create. The perverse egalitarian does not even need to do anything to improve the lot of the worse-off; he or she just needs to bring the better-off down to their level. But the greatest taboo for the perverse egalitarian is to allow anybody, for whatever reason, to escape the “leveling” process and “get away with” an advantage that another lacks. Perverse egalitarianism is the reason why “security” measures ostensibly designed to catch a handful of wrongdoers and prevent potential attacks by a tiny minority of perpetrators, almost inevitably burden the entire population. It would be “unfair”, according to the perverse egalitarians, to scrutinize only a subset of people, while letting others walk into airplanes unsearched or live their lives un-surveilled. Because it is indeed true that some people cannot altogether escape suspicion, the perverse egalitarians believe that nobody should be able to. To do otherwise would be to commit the cardinal sin of “profiling” – never mind that the perverse egalitarians’ way would visit the very same inconveniences of such profiling upon everybody.
But perverse egalitarianism brings only the permanent enshrinement of suffering under the guise of equality or “social justice”. It is reprehensible to make everyone suffer simply because an inconvenience might justifiably exist for some. And while profiling on the basis of circumstantial attributes is itself morally and practically questionable, there is no question that, from a purely probabilistic standpoint, certain attributes can rule out suspicion far more definitively than others. As an example, while the risk that an atheist would hijack an airplane is negligible, it is incontrovertible that some fundamentalist Muslims have hijacked airplanes in the past. It is still true that even most fundamentalist Muslims would never hijack airplanes, but just knowing that someone is a fundamentalist Muslim would not tell us this; we would need to know more about that individual’s outlook. But, in spite of all this, it is eminently reasonable to spare the atheist any further scrutiny; the only purported argument for not doing this would be to avoid “offending” the fundamentalist Muslim or creating an appearance of unequal treatment. But this is precisely the perverse egalitarian position – affirmatively inflicting real suffering on some in order to avoid perceived slights on the part of others. The best approach is to seek to treat everyone justly, not to spread injustice as widely and “equally” as possible. Highly targeted approaches toward threat detection should be used to focus solely on probable offenders while deliberately aiming to keep as many people as possible out of the scope of searches and surveillance.
Zoltan Istvan’s proposal to spare atheists from intrusive airport screenings would be a step forward compared to the status quo, but his argument, taken to its logical conclusion, should lead to virtually everybody being “fast-tracked” through airport security. The special treatment, and special lines, should be reserved for the tiny minority of likely wrongdoers who truly warrant suspicion.
* Gennady Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist and philosophical essayist, and is Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator. He lives in Carson City, Nevada.