April 6, 2012 7:16 AM

Security Theater 2012: "Protecting" us from threats only the TSA has the power to see

[T]wo basic arguments about post-9/11 airport security. One, we are not doing the right things: the focus on airports at the expense of the broader threat is not making us safer. And two, the things we are doing are wrong: the specific security measures put in place since 9/11 do not work. Kip Hawley doesn’t argue with the specifics of my criticisms, but instead provides anecdotes and asks us to trust that airport security—and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in particular—knows what it’s doing.

That airport security is almost purely bad theater designed to make travelers FEEL safe is a reality lost on few Americans…except those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Like, f’rinstance, former TSA Administrator Kip Hawley, who’s willing to defend a security screening protocol so rife with holes that it resembles a Dutch dike.

Bruce Schneier has been focused on airport security for years, and he’s one of a number of bloggers willing to call the TSA on its patently silly and arguably pointless system. I’m all for airport security, but how can we claim to be safe when we have to live with these sorts of contradictions?

  • A 400ml bottle of liquid is dangerous…but four 100ml bottles are not.
  • Butter knives given to first class passengers are too dangers to be taken through a security checkpoint.
  • There are 21,000 people on the “no-fly” list. These are people considered too dangerous to be allowed on a commercial airplane…but not dangerous enough to arrest. If this isn’t a giant “WTF??” type of question, I don’t know what would be.
  • Travelers wishing to be granted access to an airplane must be willing to accede to all manner of invasive searches and questioning. Essentially, by virtue of purchasing a ticket, travelera are deemed to have forfeited their 4th Amendment rights. Illegal search and seizure? Terrorists don’t recognize the 4th Amendment, Comrade…

The humiliation, the dehumanisation and the privacy violations are also harms. That Mr Hawley dismisses these as mere “costs in convenience” demonstrates how out-of-touch the TSA is from the people it claims to be protecting. Additionally, there’s actual physical harm: the radiation from full-body scanners still not publicly tested for safety; and the mental harm suffered by both abuse survivors and children: the things screeners tell them as they touch their bodies are uncomfortably similar to what child molesters say.

In 2004, the average extra waiting time due to TSA procedures was 19.5 minutes per person. That’s a total economic loss—in -America—of $10 billion per year, more than the TSA’s entire budget. The increased automobile deaths due to people deciding to drive instead of fly is 500 per year. Both of these numbers are for America only, and by themselves demonstrate that post-9/11 airport security has done more harm than good.

The current TSA measures create an even greater harm: loss of liberty. Airports are effectively rights-free zones. Security officers have enormous power over you as a passenger. You have limited rights to refuse a search. Your possessions can be confiscated. You cannot make jokes, or wear clothing, that airport security does not approve of. You cannot travel anonymously. (Remember when we would mock Soviet-style “show me your papers” societies? That we’ve become inured to the very practice is a harm.) And if you’re on a certain secret list, you cannot fly, and you enter a Kafkaesque world where you cannot face your accuser, protest your innocence, clear your name, or even get confirmation from the government that someone, somewhere, has judged you guilty. These police powers would be illegal anywhere but in an airport, and we are all harmed—individually and collectively—by their existence.

Here we are, going on 11 years past 9.11…and we’re still making the same mistakes in much the same manner we always have. “Security Theater” isn’t about the safety of travelers- not when grandmothers are frisked and victims of child and sexual abuse are treated in a manner reminiscent of their abuse. Don’t get me wrong; security is a good thing. We need a protocol whose goals and methods are all about protecting the traveling public. As I’ve argued for years, though, the system we have is not the system we need. It shouldn’t be about making travelers FEEL safe. It’s about protecting travelers from legitimate (not imagined) threats. And isn’t loss of liberty a significant harm? How does depriving a traveler of their liberty in order to protect that liberty make any sense in a free society?

Sometimes I find myself wondering if it isn’t going to take another large-scale terrorist attack to wake the TSA and traveling public from their self-induced state of denial. I certainly hope not…but why are saddled with a security protocol that’s designed to protect from threats that have already been brought to fruition. Shutting the barn door after the horse is gone seems a damned poor way to protect the traveling public.

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This page contains a single entry by Jack Cluth published on April 6, 2012 7:16 AM.

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