Vile VIPRs

Passport in hand


Will our children and grandchildren ever watch old World War II movies? And if they do, what will they think when they see Nazis in scary uniforms, fierce dogs at their sides, patrolling trains, bus stations and highways and randomly demanding, “Your papers, please”?

Will they think, “What’s the big deal? That’s just what governments do,” because such searches have become a “normal” part of their lives?

Or will they realize, “Oh, my God. We have become our worst enemies”?

And what will they think when they see a documentary about Communist East Germany? The camera pans an endless row of shelves, each containing thousands of dossiers—records on millions of citizens filled with the reports of millions of snitches.

Will they think, “Hey, too bad they didn’t have computers. They’d have been able to keep those records a lot more efficiently,” because they’ll be so used to a culture of informants and suspicion?

Or will they understand that, “Yes, we have become our own worst enemies”?

To put it more accurately, will they realize: “Our government considers us all enemies. Therefore, that government is our enemy and the enemy of freedom.”

Last fall, a news item skittered around the Internet while (as usual) the mainstream media chose to ignore it. The headline was “Tennessee Becomes First State To Fight Terrorism Statewide.” The article, however, noted that the combined state/federal action “… isn’t in response to any particular threat.”

What actually happened is that the government of Tennessee hooked up with the TSA to send VIPR teams simultaneously into multiple truck weigh stations and bus stations. Their aim? To conduct random searches of passengers, random inspections of cargo, and random dog-sniffs while also recruiting truck drivers into something called the First Observer Highway Security Program. That’s the truckers’ custom version of the now-familiar “If you see something, say something.”

Well, I’ve said it before: A prudent person who sees something truly suspicious doesn’t need to be encouraged to report his or her suspicions. These programs do nothing but fan hysteria, in this case literally encouraging motorists to imagine a terrorist behind every mud-obscured license plate or loose trunk latch.

And of course these programs also work to build East German-style dossiers (because every report of our “suspicious” behavior becomes an entry in our permanent government record, even if the accusation is baseless). And let’s not forget to mention those programs build the budgets of the agencies in question.

But today I’d like to deal with that terrible acronym, VIPR. And all that it stands for.

The initials themselves mean “Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response.” VIPR teams are an arm of the TSA. They began fanning out across the nation in 2007, conducting random warrantless searches at railroad stations, ferry terminals, bus depots and other non-air transportation hubs.

In 2009, there were ten VIPR teams. By 2011, 25 teams conducted thousands of random searches that cost We the Taxpayers $30 million. For 2012, the TSA has asked Congress to authorize a total of 37 VIPR teams at a cost of $110 million. As of this writing, I have no information on whether Congress will grant that wish—but you can already see the pattern.

Have the VIPR teams caught a single terrorist? No. Is there any reason to believe they’re likely to? No. Are they the most efficient or most American way to do … well, whatever job they claim to be doing? Are you serious? But it’s important that we have more of them and more money to fund them. Why? Don’t ask. If you question anything a government agency does in the name of the War on Terrorism, you’re probably a terrorist yourself, or at least “on the side of the terrorists.” And you deserve to be in one of those dossiers.

They are, after all, just creepy TSA bumblers, very much like the ones who paw your daughter ’s crotch at the airport while missing the large knife in the -next guy’s carry -on.

Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response. You can be sure that nobody came up with that name because it was the clearest or most reasonable description of what VIPR is all about. No, it’s a dead certainty that somebody came up with it because they thought “Viper” was a cool, sexy, scary appellation.

“Viper” or “VIPR” is the sort of name a ten-year-old boy or motorcycle gang would come up with. It sounds tough. “Yeah, don’t mess with the Viper.” “The Viper’ll get you if you don’t watch your step.” And yes, I understand that, to guys raised on kickass comic-book heroes and villains, being a Viper has a certain appeal.

Which is precisely why we should be scared—very scared. Oh, not of the VIPR team members. They are, after all, just creepy TSA bumblers, very much like the ones who paw your daughter’s crotch at the airport while missing the large knife in the next guy’s carry-on. (In a Savannah, Georgia, Amtrak station last spring, crack VIPR agents actually searched passengers who had already gotten off the train. They forced them to go back into the secured area of the station on the false pretense that their luggage was inside. The luggage was in fact sitting outside, completely unsecured. The operation was handled with such spectacular ineptitude that when Amtrak police chief John O’Connor first read about it on the Internet, he didn’t believe what he was reading. When he realized the claims were true, he said, “I hit the ceiling.” Then he ordered VIPR and the TSA off Amtrak property, stating that what they were doing was both illegal and against Amtrak policies.)

We should fear the fact that government agencies increasingly opt for these sorts of emotionally charged acronyms (either tough-guy versions like VIPR or manipulative ones like USAPATRIOT Act, which stands for the even more tortuous construct, “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism”).

You think it’s just harmless fun? Think again. A viper is a snake. A deadly poisonous snake. Why would a government invite even the tiniest suspicion that it wishes to release deadly snakes to slither among the population?

Perhaps for the same reason that another government rejoiced in the idea of death’s heads and lightning bolts. Those were the symbols of Hitler’s foulest beasts, the Schutzstaffel, better known as the SS. Those symbols were chosen because they seemed sexy-dangerous, too. Picture those evil bastards from the old movies—they would have been perfectly happy to be known as VIPRs.

Do you know what Schutzstaffel means? Protection squadron. Yet we know the SS protected nothing except the power elite. They were, in fact, responsible for some of the worst Nazi atrocities, all in the name of “The Fatherland.”

“Uncontrolled search and seizure is one of the first and most effective weapons in the arsenal of every arbitrary government ….”

Now we have VIPRs, which are supposedly for our own protection, roaming the highways and prowling the bus stations of America on behalf of something called the Department of Homeland Security.

Am I saying that the TSA’s VIPR teams are, in fact, as terrible as Hitler’s SS? No. Not even close. Of course not. The SS was far less restrained—and more efficient.

Yet this whole business of slithering, sneaking VIPR teams let loose on the nation is more akin to the dream of a Stalin or Hitler than Jefferson or Madison. It’s intimidating. It’s uber-authoritarian. Not to mention that it’s in complete, utter, absolute violation of every protection supposedly guaranteed to us by the Fourth Amendment. It’s antifreedom and has no place in an alleged democracy or republic.

As Robert Jackson, chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, said, “Uncontrolled search and seizure is one of the first and most effective weapons in the arsenal of every arbitrary government…. Among deprivations of rights, none is so effective in cowing a population, crushing the spirit of the individual and putting terror in every heart.”

No, I’m not saying the bumbling, intrusive, unconstitutional TSA VIPRs are equivalent to the SS. Fortunately they are only distant cousins. I am saying we’d better watch where we’re headed. And we’d better quit believing that everything is permissible as long as it’s done in the name of “protection” or “security.”

About Author

Claire Wolfe

Claire Wolfe is a libertarian author and columnist. Some of Wolfe's favored topics are gulching or homesteading, firearms, homeschooling, open source technology, and opposition to national ID and the surveillance state or nanny state.

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