Groping Around for Security

”Remember what the MPAA says; Horrific, deplorable violence is okay, as long as people don’t say any naughty words” – Sheila Broflovski, South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut

For those watching the news, or traveling by air frequently, you will know there is a bit of an uproar brewing over new screening procedures used by the TSA. The TSA is using new backscatter screening machines to effectively take naked pictures of travelers to ensure that they aren’t carrying anything dangerous under their clothes. Once upon a time that’s what the metal detectors were for. But, the “underwear bomber” was able to sneak things past the metal detectors, requiring more effective screening procedures.

The problem with the new screening machines is two fold. First, you are now being viewed naked by TSA screeners. One could understand how this might feel like an invasion of privacy. (One commentator noted how the random selection for advanced screening seemed to be heavily weighted toward beautiful young women.) Secondly, there is concern over the health impact of the radiation. Now, the defenders of the machines will claim there is no issue. I’ll stay away from that one, but I will note that radiation certainly has health impact, and frequent travelers especially may have concern about continual exposure.

Given these concerns, travelers have the option of “opting out” of the radiation screening. This, however, leads to a rather aggressive, extensive body search that has lead to quite a few problems. TSA agents grope genitals – even of children – and apparently have even fully exposed women’s breasts to other travelers near the screening area. You would go to jail if you did this to a random passer by – but TSA agents operate with impunity.

Now, policy defenders will point out that (1) we have already seen that the previous procedures can be bested and (2) nobody has a fundamental right to air travel. I agree on both counts. What I will argue now is that the failure of the previous policies and procedures does not logically lead to the new procedures, unless you’re operating from a severely limiting starting point.

First, a reminder of some definitions. Racism: the belief in the inherent superiority or inferiority of a particular race. Prejudice: (from the Latin “pre” meaning “before” and “judice” from which we derive “judgment”) to judge a person or situation based on previous information and rationale, not necessarily related to the current person or situation. OK, I didn’t pull those from Websters. My point is simply that prejudice and racism are two different things. Maybe there are issues with each, but they are not the same.

Totally random searches are stupid. We know full well that the distribution of potential terrorists is not uniform across all demographics. To choose a screening procedure that intentionally assumes all people are just as likely to be terrorists is, to put it mathematically, intentionally sub-optimal. If the goal of the security agency is to prevent terror attacks, they would not take such an approach

Obviously they have more than one goal or constraint. One might suspect that the goal would be to “prevent terror attacks while defending the individual liberties of the citizenry.” But this too would not lead to the current procedures. No, defending the liberties of the citizenry would really dictate that TSA agents do not need to feel the crotch of three year old girls who were trepidacious about sending teddy bears through the x-ray machine and therefore requires “advance screening.”

No, it would appear that the actual goal statement is “to prevent terror attacks without using anything that even smells slightly like profiling – ’cause profiling is prejudicial and is therefore wrong.” This couldn’t be more wrong-headed and self-contradictory. If you argue for advanced screening based on “people don’t have a right to fly, and we’ll do whatever we have to to keep the airway safe” – then the same argument MUST apply to profiling. Either the TSA is here to protect us in air travel or not. You cannot argue that people forfeit their right to privacy but not their right to feel no prejudice.

As for the advanced pat-downs, they clearly don’t go far enough. Did the underwear bomber sneak something onto the plane in his drawers? Yes. So now we have to grab crotches. Hey, how difficult would it be to make an explosive device and hide it in a rectal cavity? If the TSA agents are not probing rectums and vaginas (where applicable) they are not doing enough to keep us safe.

Of course this is nonsense – but so is the current policy. Profiling works; ask the Israelis. Quit fondling grandma & grandpa from Iowa just so you don’t have to offend some high god of tolerance and zero prejudice. Either we’re serious about security or we’re not. Current policies would suggest we’re not all that serious, or at least that security isn’t the most important thing, and neither is personal privacy.

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4 Responses to Groping Around for Security

  1. Thanks for the link, Beverly. There is some interesting stuff there; first, following is from the article itself: “Flying on an airplane produces exposure to radiation? Does anyone else find this less than comforting?)”

    This is a point worth emphasizing. Flying on an airplane absolutely produces exposure to radiation. As commenter mpbk points out, just being on the plane at altitude exposes passengers to significantly more radiation than that provided by a backscatter scanner on the ground. Granted, this small amount of radiation from a scanner is absorbed in a very short time period, which must be accounted for. But I think people hear “radiation” and stop thinking.

    Much more interesting, IMO, is the referenced report by JHU/APL, which provides what I would hope and expect to be an accurate and objective evaluation of at least the “Rapiscan Secure” brand of scanner. (Even more interesting is the observation that the report is marked For Official Use Only…?)

    Finally, a slightly-off-topic-but-related question: I wonder what is the stance on “right to privacy” in this very-limited-government forum? Granted, the 4th Amendment probably applies in this specific case of air travel, although “probable cause” is a squishy term, as the commenters in Beverly’s link discuss.

    But this makes me wonder about right to privacy of things like information or communication (e.g., medical histories, phone conversations, etc.). It is not clear to me that either of these has anything to do with narrowly-defined freedoms of life/liberty/property. (I’m not sure that means they aren’t rights worth defending, I’m just curious about how they fit in with the others.) Any thoughts?

    • nomasir says:

      Yeah, “privacy” is a squishy one indeed. The constitution really doesn’t spell it out explicitly, but folks (including justices) have certainly interpreted a number of different amendments as privacy related. From an ultra-limited government standpoint, the Bastiat view that the only proper role of government is organized, collective defense of individual rights to life/liberty/property, one could easily conclude that privacy extends to all situations where its violation does not expressly serve the defense of the big 3. So, perhaps it is not absolute. You don’t have a right to privacy regarding your plans to commit murder – if the police get tipped off they certainly can violate your privacy to get to the bottom of things. But, this too gets a bit off. The government has a funny way of deciding what types of information they have to collect just to keep us all safe. It seems to be a continual ebb and flow.

      As for the post, I was tending more toward the notion that if we have taken the gloves off and said “no rights are absolute in the face of our quest to defend life/liberty/property” (a not unreasonable position) then we certainly have to pitch the non-profiling nonsense overboard first. Why do pilots need to go through advanced screening? They do not need underwear bombs to bring down planes – they have a yoke. They don’t even need to sneak a gun into the cockpit – there’s one in there already. It’s foolish to screen them like this. Same goes for a huge list of people who we have no need to search because we know they’re clear. We, the USA, are approaching this whole problem quite stupidly – and that does not make us safer.

      As for radiation in the airplane, that’s why I wear the tinfoil briefs …

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