Human Rights

"This Machine Kills Fascists"

How committed are we to free speech? A passionate champion of liberty abandons the cause when faced with airport security, his wife, and the ghost of Woody Guthrie.
I am writing this on a plane to San Francisco. Until a few hours ago I had a sign taped to the cover of the laptop on which I am typing:

"This Machine Kills Fascists"

As I approached security at Newark, I took the laptop out of my bag to place it in the plastic tray. I froze when I saw the sign. What if this security person reads the sign as a threat? Would he care about my explanation? Would he be interested in the fact that it is only a quote, a reference to the words that Woody Guthrie wrote on his guitar? Would he care that I have no intention of killing anybody?

I quickly calculated the risks of proceeding with the sign taped to the computer. If I were pulled aside, would the security staff see me as a genial professor and frequent flyer?

Or would the staff see me as a man with a long, foreign name, olive skin, a goatee, and an attitude?

Would it even matter? They are trained to take threats and jokes of threats seriously. Some of them have probably been called fascists by less polite passengers. And I pride myself, with my slip-on shoes and empty pants pockets, as a deft, trouble-free traveler.

I decided to remove the sign. I started digging at the tape. "What are you doing?" asked my wife. "They don't want to see this," I said, nodding in the direction of the security guards. "But Woody Guthrie ..." she said. "I don't want any complications," I said.

Maybe if I had been traveling alone, I would have been braver. Maybe I would have been willing to jeopardize my flight, but not my wife's. Maybe I would have felt like having a conversation, even an argument, with security.

But instead I kept thinking about civil libertarian John Gilmore and his lapel button that read "suspected terrorist". British Airways attendants demanded that he remove his button because it was making other passengers uncomfortable, when that was clearly the point. When he refused, and he questioned airline officials why a pro-Tony Blair button would be allowed, but a "suspected terrorist" button would not, the crew returned the plane to the gate and made Gilmore and his partner leave.

I respect Gilmore and his commitment to free speech and reason. But did I really want to be a martyr for the cause? Did I really want to be a troublemaker for the sake of the memory of Woody Guthrie? Could I get to San Francisco in time to deliver my lecture if security pulled me aside? Would I still get reimbursed for my ticket?

After I got through security, pangs of guilt hit me. I don't really want to live this way. I don't want to censor myself from making harmless statements during sensitive times. What will I do when I have to make serious statements during difficult times?

I claim to understand the ways general fears can twist us into behaving in inauthentic ways. I pretend to teach young people about the pernicious effects of a total surveillance state.

But can I trust myself to stand up for my own professed values? Are they even my values if I am not willing to act upon them?

The state of mind in the United States for the past two years is a strange mix of arrogance and paranoia. We are confident that we can defeat something as nebulous as "terrorism", yet we panic over the smallest hint of risk. The fact is, neither of these attitudes is actually making us safer.

Airlines check identification of every passenger, as if fake identification were not easily available in every city in the world (and despite the fact that the 2001 hijackers used their Ids to no avail). Yet time and time again we find how easy it is to evade prohibitions against bringing weapons or explosives onto airplanes.

My students who come from Italy, Israel, and the United Kingdom don't understand why the United States is filled with so many foolish security measures, and why Americans can't seem to just deal with constant surveillance. After all, they have dealt with threats of terrorism and constant surveillance for decades.

I think that's the point, exactly. Americans do not have decades of experiences, mistakes, and modifications on which to rely. This is all new and odd to us. We all stop and cringe when we see large men in fatigues bearing automatic weapons walking in public places. This is not the country we grew so comfortable with.

As we head toward one of the most definitive elections in American history, I wonder how this combination of arrogance and paranoia is corrupting the political culture of this country and fraying its social fabric.

Can we trust ourselves to select leaders who would install reasonable yet imperfect measures to make us safer? Or will we invite our leaders to pander to our worst attributes: xenophobia, provincialism, and impatience?

Will we continue to reward leaders who insist on intrusive measures that make the state more secure in its power over its subjects? Or will we remember the value of and reinvest in our liberal traditions?

The potentially alarming statement itself, "this machine kills fascists," demonstrates a passion, a commitment, to speak loudly against the technologies of oppression and conformity that fascists use to maintain power, even without pointing guns at everyone. Eyes can be more effective constraints than weapons.

I am sorry. I am not worthy of Woody Guthrie's legacy. I wonder how many of us are.

When I get back to my office next week, I will put those words back on the computer. This land is our land, and this machine must be free to do its job. We must not be cowed out of speaking our minds.

Siva Vaidhyanathan is director of the Communication Studies program at New York University. He is the author of Copyrights and Copywrongs (New York University Press, 2001) and The Anarchist in the Library (forthcoming from Basic Books, spring 2004). More of his work is at www.sivacracy.net.
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