At The American Prospet, staff writer Adam Serwer ponders Why We Are Angry at the TSA:

The amount of freedom Americans have handed over to their government in the years since the 9/11 attacks is difficult to convey. We’ve simply accepted the idea of the government secretly listening in on our phone calls and demanding private records from companies without warrants. Many shiver at the notion of trying suspected terrorists in civilian courts, and even at the idea of granting the accused legal representation. The last president of the United States brags openly about ordering people to be tortured, and the current one asserts the authority to kill American citizens he believes to be terrorists overseas.

But most of these measures are either invisible enough to put out of mind or occur outside of what most Americans can imagine happening to them. As long as it’s just Muslims being tortured and foreigners being detained indefinitely, the price we pay to feel secure seems all too abstract. The TSA’s new passenger-screening measures just happen to fall on the political and economic elites who can make their complaints heard. It’s not happening to those scary Arabs anymore. It’s happening to “us.”

This gets to some of the issues Kevin Drum raised a few days ago in his look at The Great Scanner Backlash:

I think it’s a pretty good sign of a country gone insane that this — TSA screeners occasionally viewing a vague outline of your body — is what’s finally driven everyone over the edge. Shoes, laptops, liquids, wands, special screenings, warrantless wiretaps, you name it. They annoyed us, but we accepted them. But this! Finally left and right can unite in outrage over government run wild.

Now Kevin said that in a dismissive way, while Adam doesn’t. For Kevin, the fact that we failed to check the attacks on civil liberties back in the Bush years means that it’s too late to draw the line now. But Serwer digs a little deeper. He notes that TSA has not done required cost-benefit analyses on the pornoscanners, nor on the gate gropes. It’s unclear that these scanners would even have detected the underwear bomber of a year ago, the threat they are being deployed in response to. “Once again, we’ve traded liberty for security without even having a good idea of how much security we’re really getting.”

The fact that we did this before hardly excuses the bad policy. It just reminds us how many bad choices we have to unmake. And Serwer makes a point that can’t be repeated often enough, as he chronicles the right-wing’s outrage at the pornoscanners and pat-downs:

conservatives bear a lot of blame for their current predicament. This comprehensive assault on individual freedom didn’t occur in a vacuum; it occurred because conservatives were successful in frightening Americans into choosing security over liberty every time the choice was before them, and because America’s elected officials take being blamed for a terrorist attack more seriously than their oath to protect the Constitution.

He and Drum are right, the current backlash reflects the fact that these incursions on our rights have finally started touching on elites. I dismiss any charge of hypocrisy on my own part by noting that I was a vigorous opponent of the warrantless wiretapping policies. This blog was a center of activism on that issue in Kansas, putting intense pressure on Senator Pat “memory pills” Roberts, back when he was chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. It may be coincidence, but Roberts left that committee the year after our efforts, and apparently still bears a grudge against yours truly. TfK’s record on Gitmo is clear, as is this blog’s opposition to torture (no matter what euphemism we give it). There are more than a few of us who have tried time and again to find a saner balance between counter-terrorism efforts and personal freedom, and it’s good to see that people are finally coming around.

But there’s something deeper here. The previous efforts were either modest and plausible (shoe removal, war on liquids) or arguably targeted at terrorists. While the warrantless wiretapping clearly violated the Constitution, and the Gitmo tribunals are absurd travesties (as the Supreme Court has held repeatedly), it is hard to convince people that either measure is not narrowly aimed at people who are plausibly suspected of terrorism. Which is why they should have gotten warrants for the wiretaps, and send the Gitmo prisoners through the established legal system. And while taking off shoes is a nuisance, I have no moral aversion to displaying my socks or bare feet. Nor do I mind refilling my water bottle, and my sources in DHS assure me that the limits are based on actual experiments with liquid explosives, and I understand why security screeners aren’t being asked to distinguish different sorts of liquids. It’s a hassle, but it makes a certain sense.

But this policy doesn’t make sense, it is deeply intrusive, and more importantly, it treats everyone like a criminal. The warrantless wiretapping and other unlawful NSA surveillance of US citizens did this to some degree, too, but the best evidence suggests that they were at least somewhat selective. The potential for abuse (the same abuses revealed by the Church committee in the 1970s) exists, but it appears that NSA was applying some sort of internal, non-judicial, unconstitutional (and therefore bogus) screening. But screening none the less. Everyone wasn’t treated like a terrorist – the lack of oversight simply meant that anyone might be treated like a terrorist, which is harder to get folks worked up over.

The virtual strip searches and actual pat-downs now performed by TSA are not selective. Everyone is treated like a terrorist. The pat-down is the same one given to a suspect being arrested, and the strip search is even more invasive. Every air passenger is presumed guilty. It’s absurd. It’s an inversion of core American principles. And it’s finally got a conversation started that we should have been having 9 years ago.

Comments

  1. #1 Barry
    November 19, 2010

    Josh, as a 200K miles per year flyer myself I have to agree with your general analysis of TSA, scanners and patdowns. I can’t resist pointing out though, that this is the kind of “accommodation” you would have to accept for not opposing the religious belief that is a significant motivator of those who would attempt to explode planes. The respectability we are forced to show to Muslims (who have virtually cornered the global market on these kinds of attacks) is identical to that demanded by your “moderate” religious friends who whine when the ridiculousness of this is pointed out. By not dealing with the root cause – irrational beliefs, both moderate and extreme – we will forever be dealing with the symptoms. How can we logically criticize the claimed heavenly rewards to martyrs promised by the Qu’ran, when your moderate religious “friends” are proclaiming the virgin birth and ressurection as truth statements beyond refute and certainly beyond the reach of science? So we…everyone…ducks and weaves around the issue and the media (forever shackled by the Danish cartoon fiasco) is completely silent.

    Making nice with your moderate religious friends is a clear short term strategy for assisting in keeping creationism out of classrooms, but the pervasiveness of religious belief provides the veneer of respectability for complete and utter crackpots. Probably better to help all believers understand where they stand on a scale of 1-10 where 1= “moderate crackpot” and 10= “extreme crackpot”, than to pretend and behave as though one end of the scale has greater credibility than the other.

    So for the forseeable future we have strip scanners and intrusive pat downs. It’s a forced accommodation. I don’t like it, but I would tolerate it a little more if I thought we were at least making an attempt at the bigger problem.

  2. #2 J. J. Ramsey
    November 19, 2010
  3. #3 Barry
    November 19, 2010

    J.J. Ramsey.

    Really? Care to elaborate?

  4. #4 becca
    November 19, 2010

    Barry, who the heck cares what virgins or unicorns people believe in? Do you really think that people behave violently *because* of religion? Where is the evidence for that (that is not circumstantial- in this culture, I’d argue that if you are prone to violence, you gravitate toward places that justify that- be they sports, war, or extreme religion)? Or do *you* think that violent behavior is made more acceptable if it is rationalized with religion? I think the fact you have psychotic (in the technical sense) religious beliefs does not make behaving like a psycho (in the violent sense) any more respectable.

    I think religion is like alcohol. It brings out the anger and violence in those predisposed to it; it horribly compromises your judgment, but it can also be a social lubricant that makes people say fricking hilarious things.

  5. #5 Art
    November 19, 2010

    Great idea number one:
    Induce unconsciousness in all passengers when they fly. Unconscious they are less likely to detonate bombs. They also don’t object to searches, or crying babies. Stacked like cord-wood you can pack more people in on a flight. You can do away with stewardesses and in-flight meals and drinks.

    You could get knocked out at the airport, loaded like cargo, be shipped to your destination city, offloaded, carried into your hotel, and awake on clean sheets in a nice quiet room. Traveling would be less stressful. And if the plane should crash and burn it eliminates all the anxiety, panic and pain.

    Sounds like a plan to me.

    I’ waiting for the first attack made using an undershirt made of woven nitrocellulose or a condom with a few grams of nerve gas stuffed up their rear. Give up the clothes and expect those searches to get a lot more intimate.

    The question I have it why are we spending all this time and money protecting the airline industry. You do understand it is the taxpayers footing the vast majority of the bill for security. As it is most of the airlines aren’t showing a profit. Why are we spending billions protecting and catering, air traffic control and airports aren’t cheap, to an unprofitable industry?

  6. #6 Anton Mates
    November 20, 2010

    Nor do I mind refilling my water bottle, and my sources in DHS assure me that the limits are based on actual experiments with liquid explosives, and I understand why security screeners aren’t being asked to distinguish different sorts of liquids. It’s a hassle, but it makes a certain sense.

    Is there any reason to think that it makes more sense than the porno scanners, though? I mean, the scanners’ implementation is based on actual experiments with people walking through them while concealing hazardous materials. They do work, in some sense, and could conceivably foil a terrorist plot someday–it’s just that their chance of doing so isn’t remotely high enough to justify the infringement on passengers’ liberties.

    Seems to me that the no-liquids rule falls in pretty much the same territory.

  7. #7 Steve
    November 20, 2010

    Hi,

    “Everyone is treated like a terrorist.”

    Go to a big department store at a mall. Look through the clothing. Literally every garment has an anti-theft device.

    Are we all being treated like thieves?

    We are not all being treated like terrorists.

    Terrorists have realized that they can fill their underwear or body cavities with explosives and get missed by the previous passenger scanning techniques. So now we have scanning techniques to stop this.

    Is that the way the world should be? Of course not. But it is reality.

    Once people have figured something out, even if you don’t like it, you cannot go back to a time when it was not known.

  8. #8 J. J. Ramsey
    November 20, 2010

    Steve, let me fix that for you:

    Terrorists have realized that they can fill their underwear or body cavities with explosives and get missed by the previous passenger scanning techniques. So now we have scanning techniques to stop this that are more invasive but not likely to be any better at finding these hidden explosives than previous scanning methods.

  9. #9 Barry
    November 20, 2010

    becca

    “Do you really think that people behave violently *because* of religion? Where is the evidence for that (that is not circumstantial- in this culture, I’d argue that if you are prone to violence, you gravitate toward places that justify that- be they sports, war, or extreme religion)?”

    Were the 9/11 terrorists ( http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/04/28/AR2005042801315.html ) “prone to violence”? Most seemed pretty reasonable professional folk.

    Did Richard Reid ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Reid_(shoe_bomber) ) have a violent background?

    And I’m sure that Hassan meant nothing by this ( http://www.jihadwatch.org/2010/10/fort-hood-jihadist-trial-he-cried-allahu-akbar-and-opened-fire.html ) before his Fort Hood attacks either.

    Sure, some violent crazies will be attracted to religion, but none of the above had a record of violence UNTIL they became religious or became convinced of the need for violence BY their religion.

  10. #10 Steve
    November 20, 2010

    J.J.,

    I’m always eager to learn.

    The images I’ve seen sure look as though they would reveal underwear stuffed with PETN. The TSA site (granted not an unbiased source) says they will allow clear visualization hazardous materials.

    Could you provide some reasoning / links to support your statement?

    As far as ‘more invasive’ – people react differently. Personally I find these ‘invasive’ complaints to be puritanical in the extreme. I mean really – look at the images of people from these scanners – they look like smurfs in long underwear.

    I just don’t get why this bothers folks.

  11. #11 J. J. Ramsey
    November 20, 2010

    Steve: “The images I’ve seen sure look as though they would reveal underwear stuffed with PETN.”

    The key word being “stuffed.” If the PETN is flattened into a pancake, as was the case with the underwear bomber, it probably would be hard to distinguish from skin on a backscatter X-ray. There’s a little bit more detail on the NNNS chemistry blog. Remember that the backscatter X-ray detects shapes, not chemicals.

  12. #12 Josh Rosenau
    November 20, 2010

    Steve: According to security expert Bruce Schneier, the manufacturer of the scanners doesn’t think it would have detected the underwear bomber: http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/military/news/tsa-scans-security-theater-interview

  13. #13 libramoon
    November 20, 2010

    You know what has been the best defense against these attacks: public awareness. Get rid of the machines and gropers. Let the public know how our input is appreciated. Maybe loudspeaker announcements thanking passengers for their help in keeping us all safe and these are the people to go to if you see something suspicious. Because, you know, smugglers have used body cavities for millennia; the next step in “safety” is wholesale rape. And then there will be the pregnant women with explosives implanted or … come up with your scariest scenario. There is no absolute safety. All this insanity only keeps us from doing the things that do make sense.

    Look at the idiots with the plane bombs. They were not bombers. They were clowns. The point was not to bring the planes out of the sky, but to put the fear into the flyers. When we dishonor each other, treat paying public like meat to be inspected, build up the fear of the people, we are working directly and with great loyalty for the terrorists.

    http://www.evolver.net/user/soultraveller/blog/wednesday_november_24_2010_national_opt_out_day#

    Wednesday, November 24, 2010 is NATIONAL OPT-OUT DAY!

  14. #14 Steve
    November 20, 2010

    Josh and JJ,

    Thanks for the links – I’ve learned a bit about this.

    Seems a backscatter x-ray and a “puffer” or a dog would be a pretty effective combo for most anything now. Of course that will change in the near future, but we can change with it.

    There are bad people in this world. They’ve figured out how to take down planes. I think to argue that we don’t need these security measures is naive.

    Libramoon – I travel fairly frequently to Oslo. I’ve spent a fair bit of time waiting in the Oslo airport. One of the truly pleasant things about it is that it is quiet. Like library quiet – no warnings about the end of the moving walkway, no warnings about suspicious bags, etc. I really don’t care about the TSA screening (I do them at least weekly and can usually fly through), but the incessant PA system announcements truly remind me of the movie “Brazil” – they are annoying and serve no purpose but to make people afraid.

  15. #15 chakatfirepaw
    November 20, 2010

    The most basic, and potentially effective, argument against all of this security theatre is the response an Israeli terrorism expert had when he came into a US airport:

    “I’d attack the lines.”

    The scary thing is: Some people are going to need that attack actually happening before they get it.