Nonsense Presidents Say

“One of the most frustrating aspects of this fight against terrorism is that it has created a whole security apparatus around us that causes a huge inconvenience for all of us,” Obama said.

— “Obama calls airport pat-downs frustrating but necessary,” USA Today

This sentence is nonsensical. The “fight against terrorism” has not “created” any security apparatus; the United States government has done that. This convenient phrasing allows Obama to elide over the fact that airport security, like any other government activity, is the result of so many choices among alternatives, made by actual people. Instead, he presents the “whole security apparatus” as though it is being inexorably generated as a second-order effect by some first-order set of decisions called the “fight against terrorism,” and, by implication, suggests that only by abandoning that “fight” could we abandon these particular security measures. This is just a more circumlocutory way of saying, “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.”

Then there’s the word “frustrating.” It’s a perfectly good word that, unfortunately, has become encrusted with patronizing connotations, and as such, elected officials would do well to avoid it. Obama is using the word here the way you use it to a 5-year-old who’s throwing a tantrum because he can’t have ice cream before dinner: “I know it’s frustrating when we don’t get what we want.” It’s what you say to someone when you want to acknowledge and dismiss their emotions over some perceived injustice in the same swipe. Tellingly, Obama reduces people’s complaints to “inconvenience.” But it’s not an “inconvenience” to, say, be groped by a government official or forced to remove your prosthetic breast; it’s invasive, uncomfortable for everyone involved, degrading — choose your adjective. An “inconvenience” is when the road you normally take to work is closed, or Starbucks runs out of 2% milk and you have to use skim.

If Obama really thinks these security measures are necessary, then he should have the courage to be literal about it: “I know it’s invasive and/or discomfiting when a low-level government employee looks at a naked X-ray of your body or feels around your genitals. But I believe that if we didn’t have TSA doing those things, your already infinitesimal chance of dying of an airplane terrorist attack would become slightly higher.” His resort to circumlocution suggests either that he’s actually not fully confident in the measures, or that he’s just unwilling to confront their import for actual people long enough to develop an opinion because he sees his job as defending them no matter what. In other words, he’s become a sort of policy-justifying machine, as George Orwell described in “Politics and the English Language“:

The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.

Incidentally, security expert Bruce Schneier maintains a helpful blog on all things “security theater.” Schneier argues that apart from reinforcing cockpits, most of the visible post-9/11 airport security measures haven’t made us safer.

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