Double Standards and the TSA Screeds

Thanksgiving Eve is upon us once again. Or, as some obstreperous individuals would have it, National Opt-Out Day. And as millions of Americans prepare to take to the skies and go grab a slice of granny’s pumpkin pie my thoughts are reluctantly forced back to those pesky travel security questions.

Ever since the warm reception and critical acclaim of my column regarding TSA screening procedures, “Do You Have a Right to Fly?” I’ve been deluged with information and opinions. This has given me time to consider the questions I posed there and at least work a bit closer to some answers. One of the chief indicators for me has been the rather shocking unanimity of responses from across the spectrum. When I see a blogger this liberal and another one this conservative seeming to be in agreement it sets my spider senses to tingling.

It’s pretty much the same as my reaction when I see a large group of Democrats and Republicans in Congress all voting the same way on some hastily drawn up measure. My first response is to reach for my back pocket and make sure I still have my wallet.

But once again I will note that all of this outrage on both sides of the aisle seems to be coming from the blogging, tweeting, chattering classes. The latest poll numbers still show a majority are willing to put up with the nudie pictures in the interest of not having their plane explode, while it’s nearly a fifty – fifty split on the more “hands on” approach.

No matter how many people tell me I must be mistaken, I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that there was something wrong with all of this uproar over the TSA screening story. It was only this week when I found somebody who did a fairly good job of putting a voice to many of the aspects of it which bothered me. Sadly, that person turned out to be Kevin Drum – a fact which may actually be more alarming than the story itself.

I am so going to regret writing this post. For those of you who used to respect me, please just chalk it up to food poisoning or early onset Alzheimer’s or whatever. But here goes.

I hate the TSA screening process. Everyone hates the TSA screening process. You’d be crazy not to. It’s intrusive, annoying, and time-wasting. It treats us all like common criminals even though most of us are just ordinary schlubs trying to get on a plane and go somewhere.

But guess what? The fact that you personally are annoyed — you! an educated white-collar professional! — doesn’t mean that the process is idiotic. I’ve heard it called “security theater” so many times I’d be rich if I had a nickel for each time it popped up in my browser, but although the anti-TSA rants are often cathartic and amusing, they’ve never made much sense to me.

Kevin goes on to lay out a lengthy Q&A of questions about the TSA procedures and answers as to why they do what they do. I don’t agree with all of them, and some of his deeper “analysis” veers back off into the land of ascribing anything Republicans want to the fact that they are evil Republicans, but many of the basic points he covers ring true to me. Let’s go over a few of the the complaints and why they are mostly falling on deaf ears in my case.

Complaint Number One: This is an unconstitutional invasion of our privacy in our persons and papers without reasonable cause for suspicion.

Guess what? The moment they started putting metal detectors into airports and asking you to empty your pockets to see if that hunk of metal was a gun they were doing the exact same thing. There’s no basis to reasonably assume that a normal, law abiding citizen with a hunk of metal on them is carrying a gun, so demanding they show the screener what they have is the same violation. You’ve been having those “rights” violated for years without complaint, particularly after 9/11. You’ve just decided now that the nudie picture scanner and the groping of your “junk” is a bridge too far and are falling back on an argument you should have been making in the seventies. If you wish to continue making that argument, fine. But to be taken seriously you need to be arguing to have all metal detectors and other apparatus removed from the airport and just let everyone fly “as is” unless there is real and supportable cause for reasonable suspicion. (And by that I do not mean simply the fact that the man is wearing a turban.)

Further, I’ll include this observation from Mr. Drum.

Think again: if a plane comes down, you can just kiss your civil liberties goodbye. Today’s TSA procedures will seem positively genial compared to what takes their place with the full and eager support of the American public. Given that reality, if you’re really worried about civil liberties you should welcome nearly anything legal that protects air travel from explosives, even the things that are really annoying and only modestly useful.

Complaint Number Two: None of these new procedures would have caught the underwear bomber, the shoe bomber, or many other types of attempts.

First of all, that’s not entirely true. Taking off the shoe bomber’s shoes would have done it. And while the back scatter imaging probably wouldn’t have caught the underwear bomber, the “groping your junk” check might have done it. At least the odds would have been improved. But in general, I’ll turn back to something else that Kevin wrote in his post.

But honestly, most of what they do is pretty easy to understand: they’re trying to make it so hard to get weapons and explosives on board airplanes that no one bothers trying — and the few who do can’t pack a big enough punch to do any damage. For the most part, it seems to be working. The price we pay for this is plenty of annoyance, but again: do you really want to get rid of the annoyance and bet your life that terrorists will never figure out how to make a better shoe/underwear/liquid bomb? I’m not so sure I do.

If the security measures are that ridiculously invasive, it may turn back some would-be bombers. I’ll leave it to you to decide if that’s a desirable goal or not.

Complaint Number Three: Why can’t we just institute profiling or adopt measure such as are used in Israel? They don’t seem to have any problems.

These are the ones that really stick in my craw, and I’m sure my answer will stick in yours as well. The reason we don’t do that is simple. We Don’t Do That. We’re not China. We’re not Russia. We have a different set of rules here. Again, as much as it sounds like reciting some sort of liberal, insulting characterization of conservatives, I’ll point out the fact that it’s very easy to push for profiling the people who “look like they might be terrorists” if you’re a white guy / woman in a business suit who speaks English as their first language. (Well, speaks “American” more so than English.) But we have lots of citizens in this country who don’t fit that “safe” profile but are just as much citizens as you and have all the same rights and privileges. I’ll ask you how American it is for you to say it’s fine and dandy for them to be inconvenienced and held up as long as you can scoot along more quickly? Or, as the question was succinctly posed on Twitter this week, is there an inverse relationship between your willingness to support profiling and the likelihood that you will be profiled?

And as to the Israel defense, which comes up all too often, I’ll refer you back to Kevin Drum for a moment.

Q: The Israelis don’t do all this stuff either. Why not adopt their methods?
A: Because even experts don’t think we could scale up the Israeli system for use in the United States. What’s more, the Israeli system is only convenient for Israeli Jews. It’s a huge pain in the ass for everyone else.

Let me expand on that. I earlier referred you to my friend Jeff’s blog, Yid With Lid, where he made just such an argument. He told the story of the wonderful security measures he encountered on his family’s last trip to Israel and how, upon finding out that he was a Jew and could answer some basic questions about his Bar Mitzvah he got through quickly. He described how other non-Jewish but obviously non-Arab and non-Muslim tourists “tend to be questioned a bit more thoroughly, and may be grilled over the purpose of their visit and about their accommodation” and how the process for Arabs and Muslims “can often be lengthy and irritating, ending with a full body and baggage search.”

Is that what you want in America? How about if – as a “Christian Nation” as many conservatives describe the USA – we started rating how long it took you to get through security based on how well you knew the New Testament? How about if we held the Jews up for “considerably longer” and stripped down just the Muslim faith American citizens? Are you really comfortable with that? If so, you probably shouldn’t have been quoting the constitution in your arguments as per complaint number one above. Israelis enjoy fewer rights in terms of some of the freedoms we take for granted in America, particularly if the individual in question is not Jewish. That is, perhaps, a natural result of living in a constant state of warfare in an area full of terrorists who want to wipe your country off the face of the earth and it’s for them to decide how to handle it. But is that what you want here in America? Just as I pointed out before that we are not China or Russia, we’re not Israel either. It’s not the same.

Complaint Number Four: You’re “fighting the last war.” If you’re checking shoes, panties and brassieres, the terrorists are just going to hide the bombs someplace else.

The biggest problem with the “fighting the last war” argument is that the last war isn’t over. I find it frankly stunning that people make the argument above regarding the terrorists’ ability to see what’s not going to work and try something else. Why? Because the inverse is so clearly obvious. If you’re not checking these things, then the terrorists can all the more easily spot what will work and continue to put bombs in shoes and underwear.

Complaint Number Five: It’s wrong to go taking naked pictures of me or feeling up my privates or those of my spouse and children just to get on a plane.

You’re right. And I have no answer on that one. Like I said earlier, I never claimed to have all the answers. I think it’s awful and I don’t want to see that done to people either. I also don’t want my plane to blow up on the way to visit my uncle. It’s a completely valid complaint and I have no clue what to do about that. Sorry.

What I do know is that a lot of the rationales given for these complaints ring hollow for me, particularly the one ones listed above coming from many of my conservative friends. These are exactly the same people who will be first on line to excoriate the Obama administration the next time a plane does come down out of the sky in a flaming ball of wreckage. I assure you that many of our friends who write on this subject already have a template in place and it starts, “While there were zero successful attacks on our soil during the Bush years…”

Should we have done a better intelligence job before the bomber reaches the gate? Again, yes. A thousand times yes. But that doesn’t mean that we simply give up if they make it as far as the check-in counter at Jet Blue.

This is still a very tough question to wrestle to the ground, but I’m not buying the hype around it. It’s simply not as clear cut as many of our opinion shapers would wish it to be.

Now you can scream at Jazz for being a stupid, wrong-headed RINO even faster than just leaving comments by following him on Twitter! @JazzShaw