April 14, 2011 4:34PM

All Part of the Plan (National Security Wisdom from the Joker)

Batman's archnemesis the Joker—played memorably by Heath Ledger in 2008's blockbuster The Dark Knight—might seem like an improbable font of political wisdom, but it's lately occurred to me that one of his more memorable lines from the film is surprisingly relevant to our national security policy:

You know what I've noticed? Nobody panics when things go "according to plan." Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it's all "part of the plan."

There are, one hopes, limits. The latest in a string of videos from airport security to provoke online outrage shows a six-year-old girl being subjected to an invasive Transportation Security Administration patdown—including an agent feeling around in the waistband of the girl's pants. I'm somewhat reassured that people don't appear to be greatly mollified by TSA's response:

A video taken of one of our officers patting down a six year-old has attracted quite a bit of attention. Some folks are asking if the proper procedures were followed. Yes. TSA has reviewed the incident and the security officer in the video followed the current standard operating procedures.

While I suppose it would be disturbing if individual agents were just improvising groping protocol on the fly (so to speak), the response suggests that TSA thinks our concerns should be assuaged once we've been reassured that everything is being done by the book—even if the book is horrifying. But in a sense, that's the underlying idea behind all security theater: Show people that there's a Plan, that procedures are in place, whether or not there's any good evidence that the Plan actually makes us safer.

This mode of argument gets particularly frustrating when it comes to the vastly expanded surveillance powers our intelligence agencies have been handed over the past decade. "If these are such a threat to civil liberties," surveillance hawks demand, "show us the abuses!" This is a somewhat disingenuous demand, since part of the problem is precisely that the powers in question are exercised behind a veil of extreme secrecy. Still, thanks to internal auditing, some fairly serious and systematic abuses of the most discretionary powers have, indeed, become public. If these can't successfully be dismissed as mere "clerical" or "record-keeping" problems (but how will abuses ever be discovered if those rules are flouted?), there's always the catch-all Catch-22: Since the abuses are by definition violations of the rules, they're no evidence against the expanded powers themselves, but only show the need for better training and strict enforcement of internal guidelines.

The simplest way to ensure that there are no abuses, of course, is simply to make the rules so permissive that nothing counts as an abuse. Once upon a time, if it had been revealed that he FBI was vacuuming up the telephone, e-mail, and Internet browsing records of thousands of people who were not even suspected of being linked to terrorism—can't be too careful, might as well check out everyone—we would have called that an abuse in itself. We wouldn't have waited for someone to put that improperly collected information to some obviously nefarious use, since the history of American intelligence abuses suggests this wouldn't occur through formal channels that leave a paper trail anyway. Now, however, we've changed the rules, and this kind of sweeping, suspicionless collection of telecommunications records is All Part of the Plan.

Terror attacks, of course, are not Part of the Plan. And we appear to be unwilling to accept that there might be limits to our ability to entirely eliminate the risk of such attacks, however much surveillance power we give government domestically, however many brave men and women we sacrifice in combat overseas. We'll call those losses tragic—the "price of security," we'll say, whether or not there's evidence they're buying us much security—but we'll accept them. Because they're Part of the Plan. Even if the plan is horrifying.