TSA and the Infantilization of America

A few weeks ago I had said I was looking forward to the opportunity of opting out of the airport backscatter irradiation device and receiving my government-issued manual genital massage. No such luck.

Much like James Fallows’ recent experience, I approached the security area at Reagan National Airport and saw that the line forked into two lanes; one lane led to an enhanced scanner and the other to a plain old metal detector. So I just chose the metal detector line. Feeling good about that brilliant evasive maneuver, I soon learned that it wasn’t even necessary. By the time I got to the front, the x-ray scanner machine had been cordoned off, and everyone from both lanes was being funneled through the metal detector.

On my fight home out of Boston Logan, same exact thing. The scanner machine had been cordoned off and inactive by the time I got to the front of the line. I asked the nearby TSA officer why they had just shut off the scanner. He gave a vague answer about it being related to scheduled shift transitions, but then he said it was just random throughout the day. This got me angry. Are these wildly expensive and undignified machines essential for my safety, or are they not? The answer cannot possibly be, “yes, except during scheduled shift changes.” Janet Napolitano says they make us all “objectively safer.” Assuming you can manage to find an airport and a particular security lane which leads to one of these machines (there are only 1000 machines currently deployed, and there are 2200 separate security lanes in the U.S.), why then is TSA insisting on making us objectively “less safe” by switching the machines off throughout the day?

There’s obviously utility in cultivating ambiguity and randomness in your security procedures. And a truly random procedure can be quite effective as a deterrent, if the procedure itself actually works as a security measure. But of course, these machines do not work, so the threat that they might be operational at any time is not a deterrent at all. If there were a smart, dedicated terrorist in any of these lines with me, he wouldn’t care which security lane he was in (though he’d surely chose the least-resistant path, as I did), and he wouldn’t care about the TSA’s inscrutable method of shutting the scanners on and off throughout the day. He would have undetectable explosive material in his anal cavity, or his mouth, and that’s that. Nothing can be done about that, and no official has claimed otherwise.

In her USA Today op-ed in November, at the height of the TSA backlash, Janet Napolitano said that these scanners “represent…a commitment to be one step ahead of those who seek to do us harm.” Notwithstanding the cavity bomb problem which makes nonsense of her statement, there is an impressive amount of wrongness in that tiny quote. First, wouldn’t it be better if she actually were one step ahead, rather than just doing things that represent a commitment to be one step ahead? Second, yes, it would be better, but not by much. How many steps are there on this ladder to perfect security? Since, as TSA chief John Pistole admits, the only perfect security method would be nobody flies, there are an infinite number of steps in Napolitano’s “one step ahead” approach. And the approach is much more aptly described as a one step behind approach. Surely our TSA security evolution shows that we are resigned to playing a game of leap-frog in which the terrorists, not we, jump first, leaving us fumbling to respond and catch up to yesterday’s threats. Liquids, shoes, underwear, toner cartridges. Are we one step ahead? Are we even representing a commitment to be?

Pistole actually seems like a thoughtful guy with an impossible job. Read his full interview with the Atlantic’s Jim Fallows and Jeff Goldberg. He concedes all of the following:

–Another successful airplane attack is inevitable

–As we harden airports and airplanes as targets, it may just displace the terror threat to other public venues

–The gaps in airport security are infinite. Huge majority of airport employees—many with tarmac access—are never physically screened. The snaking security lines are themselves very vulnerable to attack.

–Today’s airport security is an interim solution to a long-term problem. We need a radical change away from inspection of materials and toward inspection of passengers.

–Current TSA workforce does not have the educational and professional skills to manage this necessary transition.

These are interesting admissions, and reflect very consequential policy debates that will be essential in the coming years. My main point here is that it is sad that only the readers of the Atlantic (and this blog) can benefit from them. Why doesn’t Pistole hold a prime-time press conference and explain all this to the American people as if we were adults? Why don’t our leaders discuss the inevitability of the next attack and thereby begin to inure the public against manic overreaction when it occurs? Why don’t they admit that there are yawning gaps in current security procedures, and the only means available to try and fill those gaps often lead to very blunt and imprecise and ineffectual tactical tail-chasing?

Our current architecture of domestic security is a façade of wish-thinking and built upon a systematic infantalizing of the American public; one that insists that security theater is the same as security, and that providing a symbol of being one step ahead is the same as being one step ahead. Our political leaders will indeed be scorned ruthlessly when the next attack occurs, and for their craven avoidance of hard choices, and their abased estimation of the maturity and dignity of the American people, they will have earned it.

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3 Responses to “TSA and the Infantilization of America”


  • Join the boycott by checking out the new Meetup group at Meetup.com

    http://www.meetup.com/National-Boycott-of-Airline-Travel-2011/

    It’s also on Facebook.

  • Let’s face it–the TSA is an expensive charade that distantly outpaces any possible threat it could mean to address. But charades are an essential element of human existence–when was the last time you told a convenient lie to avoid an inconvenient truth? Even though we both might know that those jeans make your ass look fat, I have to tell you that they don’t or we’ll have a problem. If we both know I’m lying, yet I still cannot utter the truth without grievous repercussions, we arrive at the phenomenon of human cognition and communication that also produces an agency like TSA.

    Yes, you and I both know that a terrorist can still make his or her way onto an airplane even with the TSA security checks. But the checks make it a little bit harder. And as easy as the news media make a terrorist attack sound, conducting an attack actually has to be kind of tough. That’s why terrorist organizations have things like training camps. If anyone could successfully conduct a clandestine military operation, the United States would not need to so thoroughly train and equip its own cadre of clandestine military and paramilitary operatives. These operations do require skill, and any hindrance has a chance of preventing a successful attack from occurring.

    And no, most of us would not get on a plane without most of the TSA safeguards in place. Inasmuch as they keep the air travel industry in existence, we do derive some benefit from the inconvenience.

    We will not eschew TSA, whether they “touch our junk” or not. I hope Estelle Edwards and her wrong-headed coalition fail miserably. And I’m confident they will.

    On the other hand, your post follows along a line of helpful and measured analyses that will help TSA along its path of simultaneously improving security, privacy, and through-put. They’ll never arrive at perfection, and it shouldn’t surprise us that Pistole admits as much.

    P.S. You KNOW someone has the heart of a public servant when they give up their position as Deputy Director of the FBI to run a cluster like TSA.

  • Maybe a boycott will fail. At least, it’s important for Americans to stand up and fight for something instead of being complacent. Complacency is costing us our republic.

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