Thursday, November 18, 2010

Temporary Safety

"They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." Ben Franklin, 1775

On September 11th, 2001, all the natural privileges that we have enjoyed as a nation shook to their cores. We have been blessed with a uniquely defensible geographical location, enough good will to protect us from many potential challengers, and the strength to try to spread the best of our politics and defend the world's weakest where we could. We haven't been perfect and we haven't always had the best intentions, but we tried, and that along with natural defenses of the blessings of liberty granted to us at the country's inception. It is easy to feel invincible when you have all of this on your side, and shocked when you realize you may not be as strong as you once thought.

It is natural to be fearful under these circumstances. On September 12th, there was a bomb scare at American University, and we spent much of the day half dressed in the parking lot across Wisconsin Avenue, wondering and worrying about what was going on and if the people who had brought down the Twin Towers could be coming for us. I still remember my friend Colin's tee shirt that day - a white Hanes undershirt with an American flag drawn on it in permanent marker. I would probably have sacrificed a lot of essential liberty for temporary safety that day. It was terrifying and unreal, and most of us hadn't even begun to deal with what had happened the day before. There's no way to quickly wrap your brain around a situation that could convince people leaping to the sidewalk from tens of stories up was better than what was behind and above them. There's no real way to be an 18 year old and think rationally about things when your Mom is calling you to beg you to come home and there are fighter jets going overhead every 15 minutes. There's no way to stand in front of the Pentagon and tell yourself that this is just one day, and it will get better.

We're almost ten years from September 11th now, and we're still scared, which I think is all right. I think something fundamental snapped in us that day, and we haven't been addressing it. When I think about how it might be made better, I often come back around to thinking the single best thing we could do for the American psyche would be to assign everyone a psychologist and give them a year off to work it out. No, it's not the continuing hurt that's of such concern - it's that we're still jettisoning liberty left, right and center for the sake of temporary safety. Even worse, we're not even getting temporary safety. We're just giving away our liberty.

I have never understood the TSA. Let me back up - I've never understood the DHS, because adding bureaucracy over the top of bureaucracies that are not cooperating in order to MAKE them cooperate sounds like pouring lighter fluid on a fire that won't stop burning your house down, but the TSA and the policies that govern it have always been the most confusing and aggravating part of the DHS. I am not sure where one would go to find a more reactive, convoluted approach to security. I am unconvinced that the TSA has even a modicum of proactive thought in its collective hivemind to foil a single terrorist, which I feel has been borne out by the "gee, that was lucky" captures of the last couple terrorist arrests.

Let me first say that the aviation industry was not one without use for security reform. There could have been some adjustments to policy and some development of streamlined, cross-the-board security standards. That being said, the TSA has not provided these reforms, and in fact has crippled an industry already sagging under the weight of its antiquated business model. It clamped down on one of the few sectors of aviation that was booming in 2001 - civil aviation - and had the entertaining but ultimately problematic effect of adding more expenses to the industry while also giving them a government crutch to lean on when they should have been examining said business plan.

Part of the shock of September 11th was the new mode of violence. Terrorists hijacked planes that had easily accessible cabin doors, no security personnel on board, and unprepared passengers. Work Friend Joe pointed out quite correctly that with the addition of locking, fireproof, bulletproof doors on the cockpits, about 90% of the problem is solved right off the bat. Locking down that area removes the possibility that the plane can be used as a guided missile. He also pointed out that if anyone tried to hijack a plane with a knife or box cutter or any kind of smallish blade, the entire plane would be pigpiled on that person in about four seconds, limiting viable hijacking options to explosives, which could be detected by more sophisticated trace-detection portal machines (or "puffer" machine; unfortunately these machines as they currently exist are oversensitive to dust and humidity and have been discontinued, though it seems that further research and development would be in everyone's interest), or guns, which are also reasonably easily detected. Any security measures you add on top of the locked door is more or less gravy.

Minor discursis: I have no idea why the TSA would ever have to go through my luggage. They have x-ray scanners for luggage and can see everything in there, plus I can't access it if it's under the plane. This is, quite simply, bullshit, and whenever I get one of those tags in my luggage saying they've rooted through my stuff, I get irate.

I'm not one to minimize the very real threat of terrorism. What I will say is that the fundamental nature of terrorist actions requires that the actors constantly look for new ways to subvert a security system to cause mass terror, and that makes constant vigilance from our law enforcement and security professionals one hundred times more important than added bureaucracy and invasive techniques that treat regular citizens who merely want to fly somewhere like criminals. The approaches to airport security that have been adopted since 9/11 have been of two primary types - reinvigoration of traditional techniques, and new, mostly technological developments. (I should note here that I refer to traditional counter-terrorism techniques as well; counter-terrorism is in no way a new thing.) By and large, it's been the traditional techniques that have nabbed the big terrorist threats. Let's take this article from the Heritage Foundation as a blueprint. Of the 19 cases listed, the vast majority were cracked with by police departments or by the FBI, organizations in place well before the creation of the DHS.

If the object is to keep terrorists off of our planes, it is clear that the TSA is not the organ achieving that goal. Should people be allowed to wander freely onto planes? Of course not. But given the TSA's proven ineffectiveness at proactively stopping terrorists, it seems ridiculous to give them free rein to move into more invasive techniques on the premise that they know what they're doing.

More specifically, it is unconscionable for a United States authority to demand that American citizens should have to give up control over their body in order to get on a plane. The Founding Fathers were concerned with our liberty, and political theorists throughout history have stressed the importance of our having control over our personal property. Our most fundamental property is our body - if we have nothing else, we have our physical being. We have the right to control it, and not to have it exposed by others at their whim.
We're getting a lot of promises right now: it won't cause cancer, images won't be saved, the photos will be blurry...except all of those are being refuted already. The image above is from a CBS news article discussing the potential health risks of these backscatter machines, one of which produced the image above. We have already had reports of people saving images from the machines.

The alternative to this? An aggressive patdown that includes a groin check. Something that's sexual assault if the person doing it isn't wearing a uniform.

At what point do we admit that the terrorists of 2001 have won? We have seen the TSA adopt techniques time and again that are reactive instead of proactive, while the traditional counter-terrorism bureaus keep doing what they're good at and actually catching the bad guys. The transparent catching up of the TSA with the terrorists would embolden me, were I a terrorist. Catch a shoe bomber = everyone's shoes come off. Catch an underwear bomber = groin check. Catch someone with liquid explosives = no liquids before security. Plane crashes into a building = no small aircraft taking off near DC. Looking for what terrorists have done before denotes a serious confusion about how terrorism works.

I hope that the outrage that has been building will convince the DHS that the techniques they are employing in this fight degrade us as humans and as citizens. It encourages an atmosphere of fear that encourages us to cede our rights with worrying speed, and I am not sure how much longer we can stand to do that.


  1. I actually was pulled aside for one of those scanners in Heathrow on the way back here. Having also been patted down at some point in my traveling experiences. I prefer the scanners. They are far less invasive personally. It's one thing for a TSA idiot to snicker at what they see on a screen, it's another for that idiot to be groping you.

    Maybe if I thought the TSA was in any way competent I'd be bothered more by the scanners, but when it's basically an agency made up of monkeys they pulled off the street I'd rather trust the machines. If we really cared, we'd be stationing military members at our airports like when the National Guard was at Grand Central for a long long time.

    Airport luggage is stolen all the time. What country was it where an entire suitcase full of weapons for a foreign security detail was stolen? Oh yeah, ours. You can't put anything worth more than $5 in your checked bag anymore becuase it will probably be stolen or broken. I'd like to think I'm using my standard hyperbolic speech in this but it's true.

    I also remember a story about 30 or so TSA monkeys having criminal records. The American government hired criminals to watch over our safety...

    I read on another blog today about a guy that used to do patdowns in a security/military setting and said for the "naughty bits" the back of the hand was supposed to be used. That most definitely is not the case now and wasn't for me. While I do not feel the person administering the patdown did anything untoward with me, having an open hand palm your breast is uncomfortable at best.

    I don't trust the idiots to find things. Traveling with an ex, he got a knife on board. He forgot entirely that he had it in his carry on and it wasn't seen or pulled out anyway. SO between ineffectual scanning or ineffectual groping (and as someone who does not like being naked in front of strangers AT ALL) I'll take the scanning.

  2. You know, this kind of made me not want to come back up there anytime soon. I loved it there, and want to come back to visit at some point, especially to go to Yosemite NP again, but if I have to go through thorough pat downs to do so... I mean, I'm pretty sure I can go to Asia without having to go through all that, and it's cheaper there. Guess I won't be seeing you guys for a while :(