T&A at the TSA

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” -Benjamin Franklin

First they confiscated our toenail clippers. Then they made us remove our shoes and throw out bottled water and toothpaste. Now the TSA is forcing Americans to choose between the full body “porno” scan, or having their junk groped. Finally, Americans are saying, “Enough!”

Ok. Maybe full body scans aren't all bad...

The TSA story is all over the news these days. The pundits have debated a whole range of questions pertaining to this issue. Are the naked scanners and aggressive frisking techniques an invasion of privacy? Do they violate the fourth amendment? Do the scanners even make us safer? Should the TSA be doing the screening or would a private entity do a better job? These are all reasonable and important questions; some of which I will discuss below.

But I think these questions are missing the big picture. What they fail to ask is, “Is our response to the terrorist threat, appropriate for the actual threat posed by terrorists?”

[Before I continue, let me point out that I realize this is a very touchy and personal subject. Nearly 3000 Americans died needlessly on 9/11 including over a dozen people from the town where I grew up. We were attacked by a cowardly enemy who targeted innocent people, and the need for retribution is very real and very powerful. That being said, if we want to minimize future loss of life and preserve our American way of life, we must evaluate the facts objectively to decide the best course of action.]

The terrorist threat.

What makes terrorism so effective as a tactic is not just the physical toll it exerts in the form of lives lost and property damage, but the psychological toll it exerts.  A few dramatic actions by a small group of people can disrupt an entire nation. That’s not to downplay the loss of life from terrorist attacks. It’s just to say that terrorism is intended to elicit a response, and that response is what is most important to the terrorists.

The other thing that makes terrorism so effective is that it’s nearly impossible to stop at the point of attack. In the war to prevent terror, we’re always fighting yesterday’s battle. Even if we made commercial airlines completely safe, it wouldn’t do a thing to stop terrorism.  A million TSA agents could spend all day harassing airline passengers and it wouldn’t do a thing to stop one terrorist from leaving a backpack bomb in a train. Should we have body scanners at every train stop? What about buses? Can you imagine the public reaction if five bus bombs went off in a major city over the course of a week? What about shopping malls or elementary schools or a terrorist sniper or attacking the water or food supplies? The terrorists can simply attack where the defenses are the weakest.

With those two factors in mind, how big of a problem is terrorism in this country and what has our response been? In the past ten years we’ve had 9/11 which killed nearly 3000 people. The dollar amount of damages is harder to calculate. The direct replacement costs and cleanup for the world trade center buildings and pentagon and general property damage is in tens of billions of dollars. More indirect costs such as the decline in value of the stock market harder to calculate but are likely much greater, possibly in the trillions of dollars. Much of these costs are due to our response (even if it was a rational response) to the attack.

It should be noted that the vast majority of these costs were due to the planes destroying buildings and not simply being blown up on their own. Some simple, common sense solutions, such as securing airplane cockpits and allowing pilots to have guns, (not to mention passenger vigilance) have all but eliminated the possibility of terrorists armed with box cutters flying a commercial passenger plane into a building. If a terrorist does manage to smuggle a bomb in his underwear, the damages are confined to the airplane and whatever it happens to land on.

Aside from 9/11, we had a few botched passenger plane bombing attempts, a failed cargo plane bomb,  and one pissed-off (non-muslim) guy who flew his single engine plane into an IRS building. There have reportedly been some other terrorist attempts that were foiled by intelligence agencies. Now it’s possible that we may have had a few more attempted attacks if we weren’t “fighting the terrorists over there so we don’t have to fight them over here,” but I find it highly unlikely.

And what has been our response to the terrorist attacks?

1. We invaded Afghanistan which has turned into the longest “war” in American history. No one argues that we shouldn’t have gone after the perpetrators of the attacks who were believed to be seeking refuge in Afghanistan. The way we went about it and the merits of continuing the war with practically no Al Qaeda still in Afghanistan are a separate topic. To stick to the statistics, according to Unknown News, over 11oo US soldiers and close to 20,000 people in total have been killed and nearly 50,000 seriously injured.

2. We invaded Iraq. First, the excuse was because the Iraqis were tied to the terrorists. Then, because they had weapons of mass destruction. Then because Sadam was a bad person who killed his own people. In any case, the anti-Middle East sentiment whipped up by 9/11 allowed the public to gloss over the false justifications for the war. According to Unknown News over 4400 US troops and over 900,000 people have been killed in Iraq including 864,000 Iraqi civilians, with close to 1.7 million people injured.

According to a 2008 study by Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, the total dollar cost for both wars (based on “conservative assumptions”) will be about $3 Trillion.

3. We passed the Patriot Act which instituted warrantless wire taps, allowed agents to write their own warrants, forced investment firms and other businesses to spy on their clients, and a dozen other atrocities.

Red means "It's time to panic!!!" Green means "Go." for the terrorists to attack.

4. We created the Department of Homeland security, which, with over 200,000 employees is the third largest cabinet level department in the government. Its greatest achievement has been to give us the color coded terror alert system. They’ve also been fighting terror by sending expensive military equipment to towns in the middle of nowhere which have a zero percent chance of being attacked.

5. We created the TSA, which is the specific subject of how this whole post got started, and which I’ll return to in a moment. The TSA has over 67,000 employees and costs us over $6 billion per year.

But perhaps the most devastating response, which is evident in our acceptance of the patriot act and aggressive airport pat-downs, has been for Americans to sacrifice our liberties for the illusion of some temporary safety. We’ve basically said to the terrorists, “You mess with us and we’ll… surrender our dignity and our 4th amendment rights.”

The terrorists must be LOLing as they watch us shuffle meekly through security lines like shoeless cattle. (Although they’re probably a little bummed that the underwear bomber didn’t cause us to ban underwear on all flights.) Osama Bin Laden himself said that his goal was to bankrupt us by bleeding us dry like they did to the Soviets in Afghanistan. I’d say he’s succeeding in that quest.

Was our response worth it? In the past decade we’ve lost roughly 3000 lives on US soil to terrorism. Every life is precious whether it’s taken by terrorists or a car accident or a deadly disease.  To put it into perspective, over that ten year period roughly 200,000 Americans have died from the common Flu. So just how costly, in terms of lives, is terrorism? The chart below, from a recent report by John Stossel, compares several dangers based on the number of days they take off of each American’s life. The chart assumes a 9/11 sized attack every 3 years.

The chart suggests that we’re spending tons of money and sacrificing our civil liberties for a problem that is pretty minuscule in the greater scheme of things. Would we not be better off directing those resources somewhere else? Or better yet, leaving that money in people’s pockets so they can give to their favorite life saving causes?

Back to the TSA

Do we even need airline security at all? What makes airplanes so special? We’ve already seen that terrorists can choose from a huge number of ways to attack us. I would submit that yes, in fact, we do need airline security. Airplanes make attractive targets because they hold a lot of people, a relatively small bit of damage can cause a plane to crash, and most importantly, they make a big splash in the news. Also, whether rational or not, if people have a perception that planes are unsafe, they are more likely to drive (which is far more dangerous per mile) or forego traveling altogether.

Do we really want this guy touching our junk?

So what should our security measures look like? I would submit that it shouldn’t be old ladies taking off their shoes, everyday citizens pouring out their bottled water, and everyone submitting to revealing photos or a ball-cupping (or boob-cupping) pat down. What we have now is security theatre, not real security. It’s all just a charade. A dog and pony show to make us feel a little safer when we fly. The fourth amendment protects people from unreasonable search and seizure from the government. Simply wanting to fly home for the holidays is not probable cause to be suspected as a criminal.

Proponents of the new TSA measures invariable say, “I’m more than happy to let someone view my body scan if it means we can be safe when we fly.” This is a false choice. For one, it suggests that if we don’t get our naked scans then we’re not safe. Based on the airline safety record since 9/11 this is clearly not true. Second, it suggests that these new machines and pat downs will make us safe, which is also a stretch. It’s dubious if the naked body scanner machines can even detect the PETN explosives used by the underwear bomber and they certainly can’t detect an explosive device shoved up a body cavity. The security screening measures have caught exactly zero terrorists since 9/11.

Here are some common sense security measures that don’t require us to sacrifice our dignity or our constitutional rights for safety. (And they don’t require a TSA or a Dept. of Homeland Security.)

1. Secure the cockpit doors so no one can break in, and allow the pilots to carry guns. This has already been done but I figured I’d add it because it’s the one common sense thing we’ve done since 9/11. This measure has made it nearly impossible for terrorists to hijack a plane and fly it into buildings.

2. Have the airlines protect their own planes. In the past, the responsibility was delegated to the airports or the government so the airlines were not responsible if something went wrong. Airlines should also be liable for any damages caused to buildings or anything else their planes crash into. Airlines, who have their people, their capital, and their reputations on the line, have a very big incentive to ensure security and safety. A terrorist attack would not only destroy a multi-million dollar plane, it would cause the airline to lose huge numbers of customers. They also have an incentive to treat their customers with respect and make their screenings fast and effective so customers can make their flights. They have another incentive to make sure their screeners are doing a good job. If the screeners failed random security checks, they would be fired or retrained.

Airlines may institute any number of security procedures. While the government is restricted by the fourth amendment, private companies contracting with their customers are not. Some airlines may choose to use the porno scanners or aggressive pat downs.  Others may simply chose to use the standard metal detectors we’ve been using successfully for years. Some may chose to institute a trusted flyer program.  Some may use behavioral profiling to pay extra attention to passengers who pay with cash or book one way flights or act in unusual ways during screening. Some may chose to hire security experts like the guys in Vegas who track card counters. They should also have access to government no-fly lists. Of course, the Airports could also chose to do some screening to protect their terminals from being blown up.

3. The federal government does have a role to play in airline security. The CIA, FBI and DoD have critical intelligence about suspected terrorists. Identifying and tracking these suspects should be a high priority for these agencies and they should share this information with the airlines. However, they’re gonna need to tighten up their game. The underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had been known by the CIA to have had connections with known terrorists. Not only that, his freaking father walked into a US Embassy and told the CIA that he was worried that his son had become radicalized and could do something drastic. And somehow he received a Visa and the CIA never put him on the no fly list.

The book Super Freakonomics has a chapter devoted to behaviors that are highly correlated to terrorists. The government has the information it needs to identify potential suspects with these and other metrics. How well they can process that information will be the true measure of how safe we can make our planes and society as a whole.

4. The government can also use its public podium to inform the public. Instead of telling us to go shopping or to run out and buy plastic sheeting and duct tape to seal our windows, the government should have a public awareness campaign that explains the true risks of terrorism and encourages people to not overreact. Instead of pretending the TSA can make us safe and treating its own citizens like suspected criminals, the government should be encouraging us to celebrate our freedom and not fall prey to the terrorists’ psychological traps.

But there’s an even bigger, big-picture question that we should be asking. That is, “What makes people hate us so much that they would commit suicide to hurt us?” (I’ll address that in future articles.) For now, one thing is for certain: If the terrorists really did attack us because they hate our freedom, then our TSA policies have made us safer; because they have certainly made us less free.

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1 Response to T&A at the TSA

  1. DAS says:

    Great essay Mike. Right to the heart of the matter, IMO.

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