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The TSA scanner controversy: let’s be careful what we wish for

Posted by Thomas Nephew on November 24th, 2010


The ‘Don’t Touch My Junk’ video. Mr. Tyner’s account is here.

The TSA’s recent decision to require full body scans of passengers — or require those turning down the scan to submit to an aggressive search — has erupted as one of the biggest stories since the election, and certainly the biggest story this Thanksgiving week.

Various groups from FireDogLake to the ACLU are disseminating “know your rights” materials, and an “Opt Out Day” movement is bidding to slow air travel security lines to a standstill by opting for the slower, more personnel-intensive pat-down.  Meanwhile humorists are having a field day with it.*

But two diametrically opposite Washington Post columnists both get at an underlying problem with all of this: what’s your alternative?  Liberal stalwart Eugene Robinson puts it this way:

What the critics really mean is not that the TSA should let underwear bombers board planes. What they’re saying is: Don’t search me, and don’t search my grandmother. Just search the potential terrorists.

In other words, they want profiling. That’s a seductive idea, I suppose, if you don’t spend a lot of time worrying about civil liberties. But it couldn’t possibly work. Our terrorist enemies may be evil, but they’re not stupid.

At the other end of the spectrum, neo-con stalwart Charles Krauthammer agrees — it’s just that he thinks profiling is a good thing:

…everyone knows that the entire apparatus of the security line is a national homage to political correctness. […] This has nothing to do with safety – 95 percent of these inspections, searches, shoe removals and pat-downs are ridiculously unnecessary. The only reason we continue to do this is that people are too cowed to even question the absurd taboo against profiling – when the profile of the airline attacker is narrow, concrete, uniquely definable and universally known. So instead of seeking out terrorists, we seek out tubes of gel in stroller pouches.

Expect to hear much, much more use of the word “Israelification” as the debate about scanning continues.  Israel doesn’t use the devices at all and hasn’t suffered an airline attack in ages.  Instead, Israelis rely on, well, profiling to get the job done.  Israeli security expert Rafi Sela explains to Cathal Kelly of The Star:

“The first layer of actual security that greets travellers at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport is a roadside check. All drivers are stopped and asked two questions: How are you? Where are you coming from? “Two benign questions. The questions aren’t important. The way people act when they answer them is,” Sela said. Officers are looking for nervousness or other signs of “distress” — behavioural profiling. Sela rejects the argument that profiling is discriminatory. “The word ‘profiling’ is a political invention by people who don’t want to do security,” he said. “To us, it doesn’t matter if he’s black, white, young or old. It’s just his behaviour. So what kind of privacy am I really stepping on when I’m doing this?”

That depends what’s done  and how — and it’s mainly equal treatment and reasonable basis for suspicion that is the concern, not privacy per se.  If Israeli security meet those concerns, that’s great, but it’s reasonable to wonder whether we’d ever hear otherwise.

Much is being made of a left-right civil liberties alliance around this issue, with the ACLU, Ron Paul, liberal superblogger Jane Hamsher, and Charles Krauthammer all criticizing or mocking the TSA’s invasive procedures. But each of these groups and people start with very different assumptions, and are likely to draw different conclusions about how to address airline security.  I think the “mosque at Ground Zero” controversy shows there’s a great deal of support for considering Muslim-Americans guilty until proven innocent.

Don’t get me wrong: I mock the airline security arrangements, too.  They’re largely “security theater” designed, at best, to catch very, very stupid terrorists — while accustoming Americans to ever more invasive security procedures.  So I welcome the protests — I just wish many of the same people would spend as much time on torture accountability, or peace activism, as they do in weighing the cost of infinitesimal radiation effects against similarly infinitesimal security gains.

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* My favorite so far: Tom Tomorrow, who has a Mr. Cleaver type affirm that “I fly with confidence, knowing that carry-on toiletries are limited to multiple SMALL bottles rather than a single LARGE bottle!”  Mrs. Cleaver agrees, “You’d have to be some kind of terrorist MASTERMIND to figure out a way around THAT!”

One Response to “The TSA scanner controversy: let’s be careful what we wish for”

  1. Thomas Nephew Says:

    A friend writes in to point out (in part) that I short-shrifted the radiation concerns at the end (“infinitesimal”): to the contrary, it “isn’t so easily dismissed, according to various scientific experts on radiation, and these machines were rolled out without adequate testing or guarantees against malfunction.” Inadequate testing/auditing is a concern I’ve brought up too, though not here as I should have. I do think that even with routine testing there would be a baseline unallayable and somewhat irrational concern with low level radiation.

    My friend continues that “this coda leaves the impression that you’re OK with allowing this particular form of security theater to continue despite the issues of ineffectiveness, illegality, unconstitutionality, discrimination, deception, corruption, etc).” The point of my post *is* about discrimination as the alternative (or the even more frequent alternative). But I’m not happy with my own post for the reason that I do leave that impression on other scores, and it’s not quite the right one. So I’ll try to “revise and extend” my remarks in the following.

    One fundamental problem with the TSA system is the “Fourth Amendment, reasonable search, probable cause objection” that there’s no adequate reason for scanning or patting down the average person.

    The other concern is the “Fourteenth Amendment, profiling objection”: are some people being unequally treated by the government, by being pulled aside more than others? The reason this leaves those of us who care about *both* between a rock and a hard place is that like it or not (not), people are going to be insisting on *something* for the forseeable future, and we may then have to decide which we dislike more: wholesale suspicionless searches, but ones that are (potentially) equally applied to all, or retail, (more) unequally applied, profiled searches. Moreover, we may believe or wish to believe that the profiling will be ‘behavioral’ rather than skin-pigment/religious affiliation/ethnic surname-based, but I’m not sure they will be. More to the point, we won’t be likely to be certain they are, as all of this will be behind a ‘national security’ curtain.

    This unpleasant tradeoff — or potential tradeoff — is the concern I wanted to address with my post. My writing wasn’t up to that goal the first time around.

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