Saturday, August 11, 2007

On a real patriot act:

I flew in from DC today. Flying, with its attendant security routines and prohibitions, has become an unwelcome chore for many, but for the most part we put up, shut up and shed our shoes because we want to get there in one piece. Today I’m feeling a little less willing to accept that this is our only option, thanks to a colleague and travelling companion who’s not quite as docile as most—I’ll call him J.

J and I got into the security line behind two women who were elderly and infirm. One was in a wheel chair with a cast on her foot. We waited as a line which had previously moved at a good clip stalled completely, but that wasn’t what raised J’s ire. The woman was made to take off the boot that covered her cast (and, of course, her other shoe), get out of her wheel chair and limp assisted through the metal detector.

Miffed, J announced to me his intention to leave his pancake-thin flip flops on instead of removing them and standing barefoot on the bacteria laden floor where legions of others had done the same. This is my least favorite part of the process and I was interested to see if he’d be allowed to pass. He wasn’t. And to add insult to injury he was reprimanded for bringing a gallon-sized plastic Ziploc bag rather than a quart-sized one even though it was only about ¼ full and all his containers were 3 ounces or fewer. With a smugness born of useless authority, the TSA employee actually provided him with a standard issue quart-sized bag for the next leg of his trip. It was all J could do to remain somewhat polite.

In the relative comfort of an airport eatery—flip flops on—we discussed what had happened. J felt what the elderly woman was put through was cruel and unnecessary. Brainwashed, I defended the stupidity of the policy saying they have to treat everyone the same, otherwise it would be profiling when they subjected people who seemed more likely suspects to more thorough checks. Of course that is true, but it misses the point. J said requiring us all to be subjected to this level of inconvenience and humiliation because of fear means the terrorists have already won. I had to admit he was right-- which is particularly disturbing considering that David Mackett, the president of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance, says: "[TSA’s] entire approach to airline security is almost completely ineffective."* They’ve got us jumping through hoops and for what? All that jumping doesn’t even protect us from what we fear. It also begs the question: who is the “they” we really need to fear, the terrorists or the fascists in our government who are using 9/11 as an excuse to gain unchecked power and run roughshod over the bill of rights?

The scariest part of all this for me is that when J got a tone of defiance in his voice while talking to a TSA agent, I wanted to shush him. I wanted him to just go along.

In explaining his position, J referenced the words of Pastor Martin Niemöller, which I recognized because they are engraved on the Holocaust Memorial in Boston:

"First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out - because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the communists
and I did not speak out - because I was not a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out - because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me -
and by then there was no one left to speak out for me."

We need to speak out-- about the security line at the airport and about the Patriot Act itself. This is a question of our most basic rights. How much are we willing to give up for what is, in reality, a hollow promise of safety? Our shoes? Our dignity? The very freedoms all this security is meant to protect? J shouldn’t just go along, and neither should any American patriot.

*Read the full text of David Mackett's comments at:


Anonymous said...

Your point is terrorism works. When reacting to fear, the first thing you lose is reason. No argument here.

However, it won't do to say, as J may have been doing, that the TSA guard was at fault. The guard needs some rules to follow when dealing with a mob of people. You can't argue with the man with the badge (until you argue about him to somebody else, like a judge, or better yet, become a legislator and fix it).

But obviously J knows this. It's hard to know if J was motivated by his principles or by his annoyance or by the thing with the old lady. I note he did wear shoes to the airport that were easy to remove and that he didn't wear socks to keep his feet clean. Personally I recommend clogs. As most of us do, he probably picks his battles somewhere closer to where his comrades can be seen in line to his right and left. Organized resistance works better. Fighting means casualties so you need time and reinforcements and steady application of power on the point of weakness.

Setting aside for a moment the question whether TSA policy makes flying safer, which is very arguable, I think making exceptions even to a worthless policy is a slippery slope. First you let the little old lady go thru the machine. Then the kid with the lolly pop. Then the slick business executive. Then the harassed soccer mom toting three kids. Then the only thing left is people who don't look so much like us, if you see what I mean. That's probably the obverse of Niemoller but same dang thing. Profiling is bad not only because it is ridiculous and inhumane but because it doesn't work. It's distracting.

Discrimination is inherent in security. You are looking for a needle in a haystack. The thing you want to do is treat everybody right and the same while focussing your attention on the most serious real threats. So you can't look at the guards and the shoes and the metal detectors and the line, without looking also at the back door to the airport, the truck that brings the water bottles to the warehouse, and the process used to hire people who work in the baggage department.

So, the only alternative to the TSA airport circus funroom is to do a pointed, serious, reasonable and effective job at securing the airplane (and the unchecked baggage and the onboard food and the toilet tank) from tampering.

That's not as sexy, nor nearly as politically interesting, as fomenting fear. Fear sells better than sex (almost). All they have to do to sell more beer is come out with a heart study that shows you have a greater risk of dying if you don't drink a beer a day. It worked for aspirin.

This is not a bright moment for the Beacon of Democracy.

By the way have you heard about this new US Embassy they're building in Baghdad? Who for, I wonder? Will we be there in two years to take occupancy? If that's not America for you, show me what is. I wonder who might have made a lot of money on that deal.

soothsayer said...

An individual TSA agent is neither here nor there-- I know it, you know it and J knows it. I'm talking about the big picture. I'm saying we can have a free society or a completely safe one, but not both. I choose freedom.