The Salvadoran gang MS-13 recently splashed all over the headlines because, bizarrely, the press and the TDS blogosphere decided to go non-linear over Trump’s calling some of them “animals.” In an exemplar of the modern media’s tendentiousness, Trump’s use of the word, clearly in reference to a subset of MS-13 gang members that have been rounded up and deported, was cast as a disparagement of all Latino immigrants (whether he was supposedly referring to illegals, or “all,” depends on whose spin you heard). Many Trump skeptics and haters latched onto this misreporting, ran with it, and refused to back down when the context was revealed.

All this was, of course, red meat for the pro-Trump crowd and media, and it opened the door to heavy reporting about the gang itself.

One bit, in particular, caught my eye. That was the gang’s motto, “Mata, Viola, Controla.” This translates to “Kill, Rape, Control.” Rather horrifying, but not surprising given the brutality of modern gangs and the reputation of MS-13 in particular. Followers of pop culture may have picked up on a trope regarding gangs: that the “old school” Mafia was steadily replaced by much more violent gangs as the thing to fear, in movies and television. For a while, it was Jamaican gangs, then it shifted to Russians, then to Eastern Europeans (think Chechens, Albanians, and the like). All of these groups were supposedly miles ahead of the quaint old-world mobsters in terms of violence and brutality, and there’s almost a romanticizing of the latter’s ethics in crime (for a dose of reality, read up on Tommy Pitera).

So, the motto “Kill. Rape. Control.” doesn’t seem too outlandish for a gang of epic brutality, as MS-13 reportedly is.

Consider, though, this motto: “Dominate. Intimidate. Control.”

Rather chilling, as well, no? Not quite as overtly illegal and violent/murderous, but still thuggish and and aggressive.

Whose motto might that be?

It was the motto posted at the TSA Air Marshal training headquarters in the post-9/11 days.

Before people go non-linear on me, I’m not stating in any way that air marshals (a security measure that, unlike the TSA screening dog-and-pony show, I do like and endorse, and one that’s, sadly, not being managed well) have the slightest similarity to the animals of MS-13 (see what I did there?).

I present the mottos and their eerily similar tone and cadence as an indictment of a mind-set. Someone in a position of authority came up with that motto, and someone in a position of authority approved it. In other words, it wasn’t the rank-and-file that came up with it, but rather the people whose job it was to train, oversee, and regulate the rank-and-file.

This motto got changed along the way, to “Unseen, Unheard, Unafraid,” which is far more suitable and far less adversarial, given that these are public servants tasked with protecting us, not managing and herding us. Somewhere, somewhen, someone must have figured out that the previous motto was a problem.

Why do I even bring the old motto up, if it got changed? Because it was part of the response to an attack on the nation. Because the tone of that response was authoritarian and contemptuous of the nation’s core principles of liberty. Magician, juggler, and noted libertarian Penn Jillette once observed:

Every time something really bad happens, people cry out for safety, and the government answers by taking rights away from good people.

That first Air Marshal motto, in its aggressive and thuggish tone, reflected the leap to authoritarianism that so often arises as a response to the people’s “do something!” outcry. It’s a testament to how ready and willing government is to rush past its core duty to respect liberty and to abide by the limits imposed on it in a time of crisis. Remember the Boston Marathon Bomber manhunt? The police went door-to-door, armed and armored to the gills, demanding entry and conducting searches without warrants. Legal scholars argue that these searches, given that there were exigent circumstances, weren’t illegal or a violation of the Fourth Amendment, and in a court of law they’d probably win, but the ease and quickness with which the government acted should give anyone who respects liberty pause.

The battle to protect our liberty is an eternal one, and it’s fought on many fronts. One of them is cultural. When we accept a government that assumes the role of overlord, rather than servant, as the mind-set that produced the former TSA Air Marshal motto reveals, we shift our country in a terrible direction. We are most likely to do so after a Bad Thing happens, and cynical opportunists in government are ready to pounce on the openings such create.

You never want a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before. — Rahm Emanuel

While many see Emanuel’s infamous admission as a partisan matter, it’s actually a “big government” thing, which history shows us is the most bipartisan thing on the political landscape. Politicians routinely think in terms of mandates and windows of opportunity, as do many public servants who see the fetters placed on them by the Constitution as impediments, rather than ideals. It behooves all of us to remember this at all times. As Ronald Reagan noted, the nine most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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