As modern-day political theatre goes, few events match the pomp of a U.S. presidential inauguration.
Last week’s occasion was marked with colourful marching bands which paraded by elaborate imperial viewing stands. Choirs sang. Flags fluttered. Beyonce lip-synched. Crowds cheered.
But if you looked beyond the festivities, you got a different view of the U.S. celebration of its democratic institutions. The symbols of freedom that marked the occasion were, themselves, captive in a tightly controlled security bubble.
Just outside the bubble, the security apparatus that circled around the inaugural festivities was visible in the form of hulking military vehicles blocking Washington intersections, a massive police and security presence and slow-moving checkpoints.
The security machine is so much a part of modern life — in the U.S. and Canada and throughout the world — that most of us barely see it any more, except in extreme cases.
And few things match a U.S. presidential inauguration for extreme circumstances in a country which has seen four presidents assassinated and many more attempts and in which there are about 300 million guns in private hands.
Which is why the U.S. now spends a billion dollars a year on the security detail that protects the president, the vice-president, their families, past-presidents and political candidates.
In Canada, by contrast, the political protection apparatus is relatively modest — although it has steadily grown in size, training and cost under Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Its costs — now about $20 million a year — have doubled since 2006.
Many would agree that such security is the necessary cost of protecting leaders in the modern world. But presidents and prime ministers are not the only ones caught up in the ever-expanding security web. And not only does it continue to grow, chipping away at individual liberties with every expansion, but we all pay a price in other ways as well.
Is it worth it? That is a question that must be examined constantly.
Security measures have multiplied since 9/11, especially at airports. Travellers patiently wait in line preparing to be scanned, unshod, searched and patted down, in some cases, or put through a full-body screener. It has made airline travel more time consuming and more costly.
The Canada-U.S. border is the other place that has seen increased security in recent years. Passports are now required for Canadians to cross into the U.S. and Americans to cross into Canada.
The “thickness” at the U.S.-Canadian border is something the joint Canadian-U.S. “Beyond the Border Action Plan” was established to tackle, with a goal of making it easier to do business across the border. But, a year later, progress is mostly limited to small pilot projects. That thickness is part of the long security arms of both countries, after all.
When the National Rifle Association proposed putting an armed security guard in every U.S. school after the Connecticut shooting, the reasonable reaction was to ask: “What kind of world do you want to live in?”
It is a question Norwegians asked themselves after Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people, mostly young Norwegians, in 2011. Norway’s response, articulated by its prime minister, was more openness and to continue to live with low-key security.
“What kind of world do you want to live in?” is a question we should ask at every checkpoint and every buildup of the security apparatus.
Sometimes, the security makes us safer. But not always. If left unchecked, we all risk becoming willing captives.
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