Flights of Reason

You might think it’s hard to argue against improving airport security. For years, security experts have called for reform. Among their recommendations: background checks for workers, better pay, more rigorous training. Maybe, they suggested, the government should step in; after all, it is a matter of basic safety. And now, post--September 11, it is one of national security. Sounds reasonable, right? Not if you‘re Bob Barr (R-Georgia).

The Georgia Republican was one of the few dissenting voices against the aviation-security bill, which proposed making airport security a federal responsibility. Like several conservative ideologues, Barr finds himself in the awkward position of opposing legislation intended to improve national security and guard against terrorism.

For Barr, federalizing airport security is plainly more of what Eisenhower called ”creeping socialism.“ Never mind that baggage screeners and other security workers are the lowest-paying positions anywhere near an airport, and that they have the highest turnover rate. Barr says adding 28,000 baggage screeners to the federal payroll is just another example of letting paternalistic government do things for you. Barr is caught between dueling imperatives -- keeping government away and keeping the citizenry safe -- and the conservative imperative is winning. ”I look at a problem and ask, ’Is this a federal function?‘“ Barr said about the proposed legislation. Barr, along with like-minded colleagues Tom DeLay and Dick Armey (both Republicans from Texas) have stalled the legislation in the House. Meanwhile, current airport security limps along, still a sorry patchwork without optimal practices, regulations or standards.

Similarly, Republican Senator Phil Gramm fell afoul of the administration over the banking regulations intended to combat money laundering in the anti-terrorism bill. The Texas right-winger opposed the regulations, even though they addressed well-known loopholes through which people like Osama bin Laden run their finances. In fact, the only reason the money-laundering component of the bill wasn’t law years ago is that Gramm single-handedly torpedoed similar legislation when he was the Senate Banking Committee chairman. Here, it was Gramm‘s extra-constitutional sense of privacy that trumped the national interest. Gramm’s competing ideals led him to do even weirder back flips than Barr: ”I was right then, and I am right now,“ Gramm said. Realizing that his ideological contortion was untenable, Gramm eventually dropped his opposition, but not before he called the bill ”totalitarian“ and added, ”The way to deal with terrorists is to hunt them down and kill them.“

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