Saturday, 27 November 2010

Airport screening: Grow up, America | The Economist

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Airport screening

Grow up, America

Nov 23rd 2010, 21:53 by D.L. | PHILADELPHIA

airport screeningTHE American people are in a foul mood. Unemployment is stuck near 10%. Paying off debt is no damn fun. And now government employees have started taking naked pictures of us at the airport while offering the option of a genital rub-down as an alternative form of humiliation.

But really, my fellow Americans, what did you expect? After September 11th, you told the government: Don’t let this happen again! "This" meant the hijacking and weaponisation of loaded airplanes. Everyone understood that if something like "this" did happen again, heads in Washington would roll. That's a pretty good incentive for government agencies to act, and possibly overreact. Which is what they've pretty clearly done with recently instituted airport-security policies. 

But we asked for it! Which makes efforts to describe the anti-TSA outcry as an authentically libertarian reaction against the Nanny State so maddening. Like the 62% of tea-partiers who denounce "government" in the abstract while also  telling pollsters that they're perfectly happy with Social Security and Medicare, a large portion of those who claim to favour a rollback of enhanced airport screening would undoubtedly demand blood from politicians and bureaucrats moments after a successful terrorist attack. Americans don’t want a minimal state. They want a minimal state that provides all the protections of a maximal state.

Children have trouble accepting the need for trade-offs among competing goods. But adults—not to mention citizens of a free society—should be more sophisticated. They should be capable of grasping the elementary point that government services and low taxes, like freedom and security, are goods that stand in sharp tension with each other. And yet here we are, witnessing just the latest in a series of public temper-tantrums over the fact that not all good things go together. I’d love to think that this will be the last such outburst. But I wouldn't bet on it.

Readers' comments

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KSStein wrote:
Nov 23rd 2010 10:08 GMT

so your saying the TSA has clearly overreacted, but we should just shut up and accept the overreaction? That's an interesting conception of democracy you've got there.

Doug Pascover wrote:
Nov 23rd 2010 10:10 GMT

Actually, I'm in a pretty good mood, myself. D.L. sounds grumpy, though. You'd be wrong if you guessed which of us had a root canal yesterday.

I don't assume that the same people upset about the TSA getting to lick our toes would be equally outraged if there was a successful underpants bomber on a plane. For me, I find the outrage ridiculous in both cases and feel pretty phlegmatic towards a plane blowing up now and again.

Along with accepting trade offs, it's good to understand that perfect security is not on the menu, nor is complete privacy and we're all a-gonna die.

OneAegis wrote:
Nov 23rd 2010 10:12 GMT

I think our blogger is saying that this is a logical reaction to what the public has demanded; be careful what you wish for, basically. And further, rather than have a real discussion about the tradeoffs between security and liberty, we're focused on the lurid idea of someone fondling our naughty bits.

OneAegis wrote:
Nov 23rd 2010 10:14 GMT

You know, maybe this is just a marketing issue. If instead of selling the enhanced pat-down as a security screening, it could be sold as a "service." List it on Craigslist and watch the ticket sales skyrocket.

Nov 23rd 2010 10:30 GMT

Good post, and good comments.

What I find even more worrying than citizens' inability to deal with basic choices and decision-making, is the obsession with planes as targets for terrorism.

1) It never was all that easy to target planes. There was a fair amount of security involved before 9/11, and much, much more than in other forms of public transport (hello, over-crowded commuter trains).

2) A terrorist organisation capable of planning as sophisticated and destructive an attack as 9/11 is more than smart enough *not* to decide to do it again in the exact same way. The fixation on planes falling out of the sky reminds of the Maginot Line in France, after WWI. Yes, it was the best defence line at the time, effectively secured a previously weak spot, and was virtually unbeatable. It just happened to be rolled out in the wrong area.

3) As some posters pointed out in the DC metro incident post (Gulliver), the chances are very high that once the terrorists have made it to the station/terminal, it is game over, and many people are going to die. The scope of action is a long way upstream, where intelligence networks engage with local communities somewhere in the Hindu Kush, in the mountains of Yemen, in the Atlas ranges, the Sahara, the Sulawesi islands, etc.

But I guess that does not make for good TV footage.

Jim1981 wrote:
Nov 23rd 2010 10:42 GMT

"The new scans show naked images of the passenger's body, without the face, to a screener who is in a DIFFERENT location and DOES NOT KNOW the identity of the traveller"

Where's the humiliation?
Not to mention it's not a naked image anyway. Trust me, I've seen people naked & they don't look like those body scan images.

IMO the body scans sould be debated on grounds of cost & security value only. The 'humiliation' factor is imagined.

slothman wrote:
Nov 23rd 2010 11:01 GMT

I’d be more encouraged if these measures were actually effective. I’m okay with taking a bit more time to get real security; I would rather not waste time on  security theater.

bampbs wrote:
Nov 23rd 2010 11:08 GMT

For 30 years now, the Republicans have hammered it into Americans' heads that they need another tax cut, but instead of mentioning the sacrifices this ought to entail, they've played criminally negligent borrow-and-spend. This, in my opinion, is far worse than the tax-and-spend attitude they pin on the Democrats. The Democrats have not called them on it, for fear of cuts where they don't want them. So, I'd say the Republicans come in at 4 years old on the mature responsability scale, and the Democrats at 13 or so.

ritterjcat wrote:
Nov 23rd 2010 11:37 GMT

While I agree with the underlying premise of this post, I did not tell "the government: Don’t let this happen again!" so I feel it is within my right to express my displeasure over the latest installment of security theatre. I am also rather tired of seeing articles that essentially say, "shut up and accept it." I agree with what KSStein wrote. Even if this is what we asked for, the adult thing to do would be to say, "You know what? We might have gone a little to far here."

silty wrote:
Nov 24th 2010 12:35 GMT

So, so true. The fault is not in our government, but in ourselves.

And thank you Economist, for at last instituting the use of capchas. THe spam was out of hand/

Danny Ferry wrote:
Nov 24th 2010 12:40 GMT

Faulty reasoning, DL, sorry. The security v. freedom debate is only a legitimate conversation if, in fact, the scanners keep us safer. There is no evidence that they do. Indeed, The Government Accountability Office issued a report back in April casting doubt on the ability of the new scanners even to detect the powdered explosives used by the Underwear Bomber, which was the inciting incident for the rollout of the scanners in the first place. It is not clear what threat they are effective against that our previous security protocols would not have caught.

At the moment we've just got money-wasting automatic dignity strippers. Please make the case that they serve any other function before we debate on their utility.

Brookse wrote:
Nov 24th 2010 12:41 GMT

"Everyone understood that if something like 'this' did happen again, heads in Washington would roll."


And in the meantime, what has happened to the American male?

Used to be, he was proud of his "junk", and wouldn't turn down a chance to show off.

But no longer, and instead complains about a revealing scan.


nomdeplumeria wrote:
Nov 24th 2010 1:15 GMT

I think Americans are certainly in favor of more security, not security theatre. No one understands how these machines and pat downs do anything more than current technology or why baggage and cargo are not being screened. If anyone needs to grow up, its DL.

Nov 24th 2010 1:18 GMT

What's maddening is that DiA now has a new blogger who makes MS look like a middle of the road guy. I, too, am convinced that most of tea party activists need urgent mental check-ups, but this does not mean in any way that the TSA actions and many other government actions as of late are not wasteful convultions of a nanny state. The screening and pat-downs are particularly offensive because they are very personal and, at the very same time, utterly useless with regard to their stated purpose. The fact that most Americans don't agree with the blogger on most matters is not in itself a reason to pronounce them mentally inadequate in a rather sanctimonious fashion.

Nov 24th 2010 1:20 GMT

There can't be (as even TSA chieftains have stated) perfect assurance of safety. Therefore, in any scenario, we must balance the gains in safety from a particular measure against the costs (financial and otherwise) of the measure. In my judgment, the "enhanced" pat downs have crossed the line and impose a significant burden (via their invasive nature) on those who decline to use the see through machines or are chosen for the pat downs that far exceeds the theoretical gains from their use. I, for one, find it curious that the TSA only discovered the need for the enhanced pat downs when it introduced the new machines and am inclined to believe that it is true that the stepped up pat downs were ordered to discourage people from opting out of the new scanners.

g cross wrote:
Nov 24th 2010 1:39 GMT

@ Brookse: "Used to be, he was proud of his "junk", and wouldn't turn down a chance to show off."

Yes, but in recent we have learned to be far more considerate of the ladies. After all, the floors in airports are very hard, so when women faint after being exposed to our pure manliness it risks causing serious damage to them!

Nov 24th 2010 1:42 GMT

Meanwhile, terrorist-funding organisations are lobbying for Muslim women to be exempted from the pat-down (they'd pat themselves).

Nov 24th 2010 3:07 GMT

Maybe a little perspective is what is needed. Since the September 11th attacks, not a single American has died as a result of terrorism about a commercial airplane. Meanwhile the number of Americans who died in 2009 alone from car accidents related to drunk driving is the equivalent of three WTC attacks. If one is to support virtual strip searches for potential weapons, one should certainly support similar measures to detect hidden flasks before someone is allowed to drive.

Nov 24th 2010 3:18 GMT

Speaking of trade-offs, I would submit to walking through the naked scanner if doing so meant that I did not have to take off my shoes. But alas, no.

G.Y. wrote:
Nov 24th 2010 3:55 GMT

Has D.L. ever looked at how security is done at TLV?

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