Thursday, October 21, 2010

Ten Thousand Indignities

St Louis Lambert Airport has installed full body scanners in the terminal I usually use when traveling for business. I knew it was coming, ever since the rush-job purchase of the scanners (lobbied for by the former Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, who just happened to represent a company that sells the machines) after the incident with the crotch bomber in Detroit last December.

The whole idea that strip searches of all passengers traveling by plane is a reasonable precaution against the danger of a terrorist event is...well...a real head scratcher. Does it make travellers safer? Not really. Terrorists, like any motivated criminal, look upon fixed solutions, such as metal detectors, bomb sniffing machines, xrayed luggage, etc., as just another wrinkle to be overcome. As was pointed out by one security expert, if the terrorist is on a suicide mission, they may as well have the bomb installed inside their supposedly has already been documented:

The fact that planes have not been falling out of the sky for the last ten years is not because airports have done a superb job 'keeping us safe,' because the FBI has noted, repeatedly, that the failure rate of TSA at catching test weapons, even weapons barely concealed, is abysmal. Something like 40% are not detected. Since a motivated terrorist is going to be far more creative than a civil service bureaucrat, I have to conclude they haven't attacked the planes because they don't want to.

Are the scanners safe? The manufacturers say they are, but no independent testing can verify it. There is significant debate by xray technicians and engineers about possible damage due to improper calibration, focus, and training. Do the scanners save the naked photos? The government says 'no,' but they lie. The government specifications for construction require that the machines have the ability to store images, even though that function may be turned off. Do the scanners blur the 'sensative' areas? No. If they did, then that would be a prime place to hide a bomb, right? So forget blurring.

None of these issues cause me to lose sleep. If someone in another room somewhere gets herself in a sweat seeing me in the all-together, I consider it a compliment. But that's just me. On the other hand, if it's a guy...I'd rather not think about it.

No, the issues that haunt me are: Does it violate the 4th Amendment to the Constitution, and does this open the door to even more invasive surveilance? Unqualified yes to both.

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. (4th Amendment, U.S. Constitution)

Ok, so the counterargument is that we live in a new era and that the Founding Fathers could not have understood 21st century terrorism. To keep us safe, full body scanning is a reasonable measure. As one pundit put it, the Constitution is not a suicide pact, meaning that if it gets in the way of making us safe, then it should be discarded as needed.

I don't have to tell anyone how much this distresses a civil libertarian. It is not in the times of peace and ease when we need to worry about our civil liberties, but in the times of stress and conflict. Infact, during hard times it is more important than ever to jealously guard our personal liberties, such as our rights to due process and protection from unreasonable search and seizure. Tyrants have always used times of distress to impose themselves upon their people under the guise of protecting them. Hermann Goering said all governments bring the people to the bidding of the leaders through crisis. Rahm Emmanual is famous for his phrase "Never let a good crisis go to waste." So in times of difficulty, we need to guard our civil liberties even closer.

The argument from civil liberties, however, generally fails in the face of the argument from 'safety.' As a nation, we crave absolute safety in everything and in the process we have steadily given up our freedom to be armed, to travel, to write and speak freely, to consume what we wish, to take risks, to keep our privacy. All intrusions, ten thousand if there is one, are treated individually as no big deal. Indeed, we usually give the restrictions on our privacy and our independence no serious thought, as they seem to be more of a nusance than anything. Sometimes, however, in moments of clarity, as we stand in line for a permit, license, or other official government approval before going on to do what we would have done anyway, and we sense the oppressiveness of the situation. We see the government functionary behind the desk and feel the uselessness of the paper-shuffling, stamping, stapling, collating, and filing that our lives have become. We wish we could find the words that would make the petty bureaucrat sit back and're right sir, no need for approval, I am interferring with your life, you can go about your business.

That's not the way it works, however. The System is a self-reinforcing network of laws, social norms, and expectations, glued together with 'safety' as a common denominator. Objecting to any given mandated rule, like the need for a building permit to install a new water heater, or the requirement to have a virtual a strip search to get on a plane makes you sound somewhat looney because, after all, it's for your safety. Remember, this is a society where police have announced random voluntary bag searches (NY subway) and people have approached the cops and asked to participate, then THANKED the officers for searching the bag they have been carrying all over town. What? Yes! Or requiring a background check on everyone who wants to buy a gun from a only the law abiding go through the process while the scofflaws don't bother...yet the gun laws make us safer because the people who were no danger to anyone are still no danger to anyone? The norm is lunacy. Anyone who calls out the lunacy is the nut!

I am planning to travel via plane out of Lambert Airport in the next few weeks. Though I am conflicted about the process of going through security to get on the plane, I know I have only two choices if I wish to fly: get into that full body scanner, or let a TSA agent give me a hands-on full body pat-down, including a probing of the genitals. Either way, I have to submit or I don't fly. By itself, this latest intrusion into my life does not make or break me...but it is the totality of the experience of life in America, the "freest nation on earth," that is weighing heavily on my mind.

I will not go to the barracades over this. Any protestation will fall on deaf ears, or worse, will get me put on a list with no possible positive outcome. My fellow travellers will not sympathize; TSA agents will continue to 'just do their jobs.' I will either fly or not fly and the TSA could care less. One way or the other, they win this one. Just add it to my list of indignities to be endured.

We think we can pick and choose the indignities we will object to or endure. The truth is: It is all of a kind. We will either reject the 'safety' argument and choose to live with uncertainty, or we will take the 'safety' argument to its' logical conclusion, one little indignity at a time. If we want a different kind of society, we will have to do it from a principled conviction that the grand experiment in human freedom is due for a major 'reset.'