The Politics of Fear

Posted: January 2, 2010 in Politics
Tags: , ,

I’ll begin with an anecdote from one of my travels abroad, which occurred in the year 2006. I was in Corsica for a summer school. The science was great; the Mediterranean Sea was fabulous, and the sunsets were amazing. Eventually, though we had to come home. Unfortunately, we got to come home a week after the famous “liquid bombers” were arrested in London. There was plenty of fun in the airport as we were coming back to the states. The interesting bit was the following: at airport security, every passenger who was ticketed to the U.S. went through the equivalent of the full anal gang raping required by the TSA. However, passengers who were not ticketed to the U.S. went, via a separate line, through a simple metal detector. Here’s the cute part: both lines ended up in the EXACT SAME WAITING AREA. It was quite obvious that the “additional security measures” were nothing more than security theatre. With the recent Underwear Bomb plot security theatre is once again on the rise. I don’t know if the security theatre we went through was in place at the airport in Amsterdam where the “underwear bomber” boarded the plane to the U.S. but I would not be surprised if it was.

The ugly truth is this: there is no real way to effectively screen the number of people who want to fly. There are just too many of them. The last time I flew, I was put through no “secondary screening” and I was through the x-ray machines in under two minutes (which included taking out my laptop and putting it back, taking off and putting on shoes, etc.). This “basic” screening does nothing to catch the types of explosives which were used in the recent attacks. “Secondary screening” is much more time consuming, as the passenger is subjected to a physical inspection of all their carry-on baggage as well as being subjected to explosive detectors. Subjecting EVERY SINGLE PASSENGER to these procedures is prohibitive. There’s not the manpower to do it in anything resembling a reasonable amount of time.

So we instead of actual security, we get security theatre and we pay for it through the nose. But there is an even bigger problem. The TSA has NO (that means none, zero, zip) ability to screen passengers on flights which originate in foreign countries. We have to take the word of the security teams at foreign airports that they have effectively screened the passengers who board flights bound for the U.S. Some governments (like those in the European Union) are reasonably friendly to the U.S. and try to comply with our requests. Not all governments are so nice, and even the E.U. can’t screen everything (as evidenced by this latest debacle)

The result is what we are currently experiencing in the travel industry: near total collapse. The major airlines are all in trouble. The industry lost three billion dollars last year. Poor Hawaii is really having a terrible time. It sucks being an island state which relies primarily on tourism from the mainland. When people stop flying, the island paradise really suffers.

Is there a solution? I don’t know. Personally, I think the real problem here is lies with the very existence of the TSA. I don’t believe that our government should be responsible for passenger safety on airlines. The thing that no one has been able to explain to me is why an agent of the government has the right to search me simply because I want to fly. There’s this pesky thing called the Constitution, see, and the Fourth Amendment to that document reads:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

I’ve never been presented with a warrant to search me by any TSA agent. Have you? Now I’m sure that some people will try to argue that it’s perfectly reasonable to search people who get on planes. I’m willing to accept that argument if you apply it to EVERY SINGLE PERSON who flies. Until that happens, what we have is a patchwork system full of holes big enough to smuggle PETN through in your underwear.

I DO believe that it’s the responsibility of the government to ensure that the AIRLINES ensure the safety of the people who fly on them. I’d really like to see the individual airlines compete on security. I think this is a perfect area for the market to find the optimal solution. The government should establish regulations which establish a minimal level of acceptable security. Then let the airlines compete to do better.

The problem with this is the following: we have to admit that there is no way that air travel can be completely safe. I’m ok with that, because as it stands, air travel is orders of magnitude safer than traveling by car. And while it’s true that accidents involving airplanes tend to be fatal, whereas accidents in automobiles are not. This doesn’t mean that we as a country should allow the airline industry offload responsibility for the safety of it’s passengers to the government. This is, IMO a “bad thing” ™.

Edit: Apparently a lot of countries haven’t adopted our new security standards. Color me unsurprised.

  1. Ellie says:

    I really hope that the new body scanners don’t get installed. They’ll just continue to elevate the power of TSA workers over people with marginalized bodies. And without making planes any safer than they already are. It’s national intelligence, not airport security, that can stop terrorists from doing terrible things. Airport security is inheritely flawed, all it takes is some creative thinking to get past it.

    Also, as bad as going through airport security is, it’s nowhere near equivalent to gang rape. TSA doesn’t leave people beaten to the ground, doesn’t intitiate in sexual or physical violence, doesn’t take away the personhood of someone that can leave scars that can last for a lifetime. I understand that going through airport security really sucks, but I don’t think it should be compared to gang rape.

  2. Jason Ellis says:

    I totally agree with the first paragraph Ellie, but I’m going to have to beg to differ with you on the last paragraph. I know of people who have been forced to strip naked in full view of the public. I know of people who have been beaten by TSA agents simply because they asked why they were being detained. This sort of thing happens. It’s not publicized because TSA agents are given the “benefit of the doubt” because they are “protecting” us from terrorists. And the only people who would question a TSA agents are terrorists.

    I will agree that the vast majority of TSA agents are not terrible people. There are some bad apples though, and some people should not be given absolute power over other human beings. Once they detain you in that private room, you can literally be disappeared until the agents are satisfied that “you are not a threat.” You don’t get access to a lawyer. You don’t get access to ANYTHING until they are done with you. It’s a scary, scary thing.

    It is also true that there are “procedures” in place to ensure that this sort of thing doesn’t happen. I’ve heard about these “procedures” on the news. I’ve never seen them published, and have heard many congresscritters actually argue that publishing these “procedures” amounts to aiding and abetting the terrorists.

    As ugly as it is, these sorts of things DO happen. And the people to whom they happen have little or no recourse in civil or criminal court.

    • Ellie says:

      Then use it in the context of that happening, not in the context of airport security that everyone goes through. The vast majority of passengers just go through normal security where that doesn’t happen and in the sentence it was used in made it seem like that was the equivalent of violent sexual assault, not the assaults that actually do happen to people.

      • Jason Ellis says:

        Fair enough. My fault for hyperbolizing. Personally, I feel violated anytime my rights are trampled over by government thugs. Regardless of what agency for which they work. YMMV, but when we a society are conditioned to accept these violations as a matter of course (with the extreme examples admittedly as outliers), I feel the terrorists have won.

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