I have been so angered over the TSA’s new strip-down-or-pat-down policy that I literally haven’t been able to blog these last few days.
I’m not a frequent flier, but I am always a citizen. And I have been frankly stunned by the sanguinity of so many Americans over what strikes me as a vast overstepping of the Fourth Amendment, common sense, and good taste on the part of our Government.
But then I read things like Ruth Marcus’s column in the Washington Post today -- so wrong, so blithely dismissive of the very serious arguments people are making against the new policy -- and I can’t opt out of the online dialog any longer.
So, here it goes:
“The uproar over the new procedures is overblown and immature.”
Gee. Thanks, Mom.
“The marginal invasion of privacy is small relative to the potential benefit of averting a terrorist attack.”
What, exactly, is a “marginal invasion of privacy”?
Nobody has complete dominion over their own bodies. The State does have some control over what you can and cannot do with your person. For example, you can’t shoot illegal drugs into your veins. You can’t legally end your life.
But there are limits on State control as well. Drug use and suicide have been legally criminalized. Airline travel has not. Yet each day, those two million people who pass through our airports are considered as potential terrorists -- criminals -- who have forfeited a certain level of Constitutional protection.
To date, the TSA can’t point to a single instance where their security measures have averted a terrorist attack. In fairness, the fact that there is security has likely deterred some attempts. But there are so many holes in that security net, from the failure to inspect cargo and checked luggage to often lax control of ground crew, a determined, well-trained terrorist would more than likely still find a way on to whichever plane they chose. For all the effort, money, and inconvenience, the TSA mainly snags random whack-jobs.
“Meanwhile, some of the loudest howls of outrage emanate from those who would be quickest to blame the Obama administration for not doing enough to protect us if a bomber did slip through.”
An unfortunate part of a president’s job is to get blamed when stuff goes wrong. (Remember the Gulf oil spill?) And I feel for him and the whole army of government schlubs who get blamed when bad things happen. But that’s a pretty poor justification for implementing a policy.
“Granted, the images from the souped-up screeners are uncomfortably graphic. But where is the harm if some guy in another room, who doesn't have a clue who I am and doesn't see my face (it's obscured on the machine), gets a look at my flabby middle-aged self? The images are automatically deleted once the screening is completed. It's the old philosophical riddle: If your butt sags in the forest . . . ”
If Some Guy In Another Room hacks into my computer and empties my bank account, is it still a crime? After all, he presumably doesn't have a clue who I am, can’t even see my face. It was probably my fault for having a bank account or a computer anyway. (You know who else uses computers and bank accounts? Terrorists.)
“By contrast, the pat-down is actually intrusive, no question about it. But you most likely won't have to endure it unless you balk at the enhanced imaging.”
….or unless Some Guy In Another Room thinks your packing something more than your “package,” or unless the machine is broken and you’re still in the “enhanced” security line (which, we now know, you can’t leave on penalty of $11,000 fine and a potential civil suit), or unless the TSOs think you have a nice rack. Or a tiny penis.
“If you do, the pat-down will be conducted by a screener of the same gender.”
Why is it somehow less offensive to have your breasts or genitals felt by someone of the same gender? It’s the TSA’s grope, so to speak, at making the experience of a custody search -- this is what some law enforcement officers would call it, not a benign “pat-down” -- asexual.
But it simply doesn’t work that way. Put aside the percentage of the population who are homosexual, and thus for whom being handled by a male or a female is exactly the same as it is for a heterosexual being handed by a member of the opposite sex. Put aside the percentage for whom gender identification is fluid, rather than fixed. Put aside the percentage who have faced sexual abuse and/or rape who find any unwarranted touch traumatic. In the end, it really doesn’t matter if your TSA screener just thinks of you as a sweaty, fatty meatbag....because culturally, we are trained from a very early age to restrict access of our sexual zones to a select few.
I am all for a full-throated debate on how our culture might be a better if we were less prudish in our sexuality, but I’m not sure the security line at LAX or JFK is the place to be having the discussion.
"If you want, it can be done in a private area. ”
Again, not a big selling point. Let’s have the person touching you in places you don’t want to be touched do it in private area.
“"Don't touch my junk" may be the cri de coeur - cri de crotch? - of the post-9/11 world, but it's an awfully childish one. We let people touch our junk all the time in medical settings.”
Yes, in medical settings. (See “select few,” above.)
“Yes, the technician who performs my mammogram has more professional training than your average TSA agent, but she is also a lot more up close and personal than a quick once-over with a gloved hand. I undergo the mammogram for my personal benefit; I don't know if there is a suspicious mass, whereas I know there are no explosives sewn into my underwear.”
First of all, anyone running a machine that emits even a low dose of radiation should be pretty damn well trained -- both for the safety of the traveling public and for the TSA employees who spend their days standing next to the things.
Second, you choose to have a mammogram. You’re not forced to have one to prove you’re not carrying a tumor onto a plane. If you opt not to have the mammogram, the technician doesn't have the right to walk over to you and preform a manual breast exam.
“I undergo the pat-down, if I must, for the greater public benefit. It is an unfortunate part of the modern social contract.”
How does it benefit the greater public benefit if these machines don’t measurably increase security?
Also, when did I sign off on this particular addendum to the Social Contract? Seem to me like it was decided by someone else and presented as a de facto rule.
“My defense of the new procedures assumes that there is some rational basis for the screening madness: that the techniques work and that there is not a less intrusive alternative....On the first, whether this is real security or security theater is to some extent unknowable; the plot deterred cannot be measured.
She presumes there’s a rational basis for both the technology and the custody search; she assumes the techniques work and there’s no other less intrusive alternative. She is remarkably uninterested in whether or not either statement is true.
“We do know that, without the enhanced imaging, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab got on a plane with enough explosives to blow it up.”
The Government Accountability Office reported in March that it was unclear whether full body scanners would have uncovered Abdulmutallab’s payload. AIT may be good at uncovering guns, knives, and razor blades (although Mythbusters' Adam Savage knows from personal experience that this may not always be the case), but it's not designed to pick out low-density liquids or even non-metallic objects like explosives. Nor its it entirely clear that a manual search would have found the explosives.
“The new screening might not catch every would-be bomber - is the next, resourceful step hiding explosives in body cavities? - but that does not mean it is not useful in the interim. And, no, the decision to engage in exterior pat-downs does not presage interior cavity searches. The slope is not so slippery.”
If you said, even in the years after September 11th, that the day would come when the price of getting on an airplane would include a virtual strip search and/or a extensive hand search or your person, nobody would have believe you. The slope has already been a lot slipperier than most of us would have imagined.
“Let's also leave aside any questions of constitutionality or fundamental fairness about terrorist profiling and simply consider whether it could be done effectively. The Israeli approach is an alluring mirage that would not withstand transplantation. Israel has two airports and 50 flights a day. It conducts intrusive background checks and questions passengers extensively. The process can take hours.”
It’s amazing how much easier it is to “win” an argument when you leave aside little things like constitutionality and fundamental fairness.
Maybe the Israeli approach wouldn’t work here. But don’t just dismiss it as some sort of time-saving thing: our current procedures can also take hours. It wouldn’t work here because it isn’t showy enough, because done right, it look like your doing very little. It wouldn’t work because the Government doesn’t want to invest in hiring the right people and training and paying them accordingly. I wouldn’t work because there isn’t a behavioral analysis lobby doling out millions of dollars.
“The polls suggest that the American people, a large segment anyway, have a more sensible attitude. For that, at least, we can give thanks. ”
Well, polls change.
Nobody is arguing that we should do away with airport security altogether. People should match up to their to their tickets. Bags should be searched. People should go through metal detectors. Law enforcement should be on hand to do more thorough searches when probably cause is met.
Nearly a decade after 2001, it’s time to make our peace with terrorism. It exists. It may strike us again, it may not -- terrorism derives it’s power from its random nature. To insist that there’s a terrorist under every rock or around every corner makes us perpetual hostages to nothing more than a boogeyman. That’s no way to travel. It’s no way to live.
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