Communion Of Dreams


The gift that keeps on giving.

Man, sometimes I think the TSA exists solely to provide me something to write about when other news is slow. To a certain extent, it’s just too easy to rant about the ongoing farce. And constantly harping on the idiocy does nothing for my blood pressure.

But sometimes there’s a run of things which just require you to at least point to it and laugh. First, some items from Xeni Jardin over on BoingBoing (all links have a lot more content):

Who did the TSA terrorize today? A 4-year-old girl. Why? She hugged her grandma.

After picking on the elderly, today the TSA is bullying children. A 4-year-old girl who was upset during a TSA screening at the Wichita, KS airport was forced to undergo a manual pat-down after hugging her grandmother. Agents yelled at the child, and called her an uncooperative suspect.

And…

TSA screeners in LA ran drug ring, took narco bribes

Four present and past security screeners at LAX took 22 payments of up to $2400 each to let large shipments of coke, meth, and pot slip through baggage X-ray machines. Oh, we are so very, very shocked.

And…

TSA agents harass 7-year-old girl with cerebral palsy and developmental disability

The Transportation Security Administration launched the “TSA Cares” program to assist disabled fliers just four months ago, but a story making the rounds today proves that the TSA definitely does not. The Frank family was traveling from New York City’s JFK airport to Florida, and were abruptly pulled aside after a dispute over how their 7-year-old daughter Dina was screened. The child is developmentally disabled and has cerebral palsy. She walks with crutches and leg braces.

You can guess what happened next, of course.

Then there was this item from Cory Doctorow earlier this week:

95 year old veteran and 85-year-old friend humiliated, searched and robbed at San Diego TSA checkpoint

Omer Petti is a 95-year-old USAF veteran with artificial knees and a heart condition. Madge Woodward, his partner, has an artificial hip. They recently flew home to Detroit from San Diego, and were humiliated and robbed at the San Diego airport TSA checkpoint. The metal in their bodies set off the TSA magnetometer, and Petti was instructed to put his $300 in cash in a bin. Then he was further detained when a swab detected the nitroglycerin residue from his heart pills. He and Woodward were subjected to humiliating patdowns, and then discovered that their $300 had gone missing. When Petti asked where his money had gone, the TSA agent required he and Woodward to remove their shoes again and empty out their pockets, and asked if they were “refusing his request” when they objected. The TSA manager checked the security footage, but reported that it was “too blurry” to see what had happened to the money. The two elderly people were loaded into their wheelchairs and taken to their plane at full tilt, barely making it. They never got their money back.

In each case the response from the TSA is some variation on the theme of “TSA has reviewed the incident and determined that our officers followed proper screening procedures…”

No surprise there.

And lest you think this is just BoingBoing’s obsession, how about this article from Kip Hawley, former head of the TSA, who has decidedly changed his tune:

Why Airport Security Is Broken—And How To Fix It

You know the TSA. We’re the ones who make you take off your shoes before padding through a metal detector in your socks (hopefully without holes in them). We’re the ones who make you throw out your water bottles. We’re the ones who end up on the evening news when someone’s grandma gets patted down or a child’s toy gets confiscated as a security risk. If you’re a frequent traveler, you probably hate us.

More than a decade after 9/11, it is a national embarrassment that our airport security system remains so hopelessly bureaucratic and disconnected from the people whom it is meant to protect. Preventing terrorist attacks on air travel demands flexibility and the constant reassessment of threats. It also demands strong public support, which the current system has plainly failed to achieve.

The crux of the problem, as I learned in my years at the helm, is our wrongheaded approach to risk. In attempting to eliminate all risk from flying, we have made air travel an unending nightmare for U.S. passengers and visitors from overseas, while at the same time creating a security system that is brittle where it needs to be supple.

Bruce Schneier, who recently debated Hawley in the pages of the Economist, has his (very positive, all in all) reaction here.

Any bets on whether or not this will change anything in the slightest?

“Welcome to the TSA checkpoint. Hand over your valuables and grab your ankles, please.”

Jim Downey



Fear is the mind-killer.*

It’s time to wake up.

Bruce Schneier and Kip Hawley had a good debate recently in the pages of the Economist over the proposition: “This house believes that changes made to airport security since 9/11 have done more harm than good.”

Both of the primaries in the debate make their points about as solidly as they can be made, in my opinion, and the ensuing back & forth and discussion with other participants was . . . vigorous.

I wasn’t surprised at the result, though the moderator seems to have been. Here’s an excerpt from his final statement:

I thought Kip Hawley would have the tougher role as the opposer, but I have still been surprised at the vehemence and quantity of the views expressed in favour. The debate was American in emphasis, and the tetchiness of the relationship between many Americans and the TSA is perhaps something this Briton hadn’t fully appreciated. In Britain, where airports employ their own security, we lack the monolithic body on which to focus anger about liquids in hand luggage, shoe-removal and the like.

Voters have roundly declared that the frustrations, the delays, the loss of liberty and the increase in fear that characterise their interactions with airport-security procedures vastly outweigh the good these procedures achieve. For some, indeed, the benefits are essentially non-existent: any sensible terrorist can find a work-around or choose a different point of attack, as Bruce Schneier explains. And so the widely expressed hope is that changes made to security in the (near) future will make the whole regime less reactive, more rational, more flexible and more intelligence-driven. The results of this debate suggest that these changes should be made with some urgency: passengers are angry.

As I said, no surprise to me. That’s because the actual problem isn’t with security, it is with liberty. I think that this has been the main problem all along – the governmental response to the 9/11 attacks were understandable, predictable, and almost completely misguided. From Schneier’s closing statement:

The current TSA measures create an even greater harm: loss of liberty. Airports are effectively rights-free zones. Security officers have enormous power over you as a passenger. You have limited rights to refuse a search. Your possessions can be confiscated. You cannot make jokes, or wear clothing, that airport security does not approve of. You cannot travel anonymously. (Remember when we would mock Soviet-style “show me your papers” societies? That we’ve become inured to the very practice is a harm.) And if you’re on a certain secret list, you cannot fly, and you enter a Kafkaesque world where you cannot face your accuser, protest your innocence, clear your name, or even get confirmation from the government that someone, somewhere, has judged you guilty. These police powers would be illegal anywhere but in an airport, and we are all harmed—individually and collectively—by their existence.

And this is *exactly* what was desired by Osama bin Laden all along: to prompt us to react in fear, to incur huge expenses in trying to make ourselves ‘safe’, and to stress the very foundations of our society. Again, from Schneier:

Increased fear is the final harm, and its effects are both emotional and physical. By sowing mistrust, by stripping us of our privacy—and in many cases our dignity—by taking away our rights, by subjecting us to arbitrary and irrational rules, and by constantly reminding us that this is the only thing between us and death by the hands of terrorists, the TSA and its ilk are sowing fear. And by doing so, they are playing directly into the terrorists’ hands.

The goal of terrorism is not to crash planes, or even to kill people; the goal of terrorism is to cause terror. Liquid bombs, PETN, planes as missiles: these are all tactics designed to cause terror by killing innocents. But terrorists can only do so much. They cannot take away our freedoms. They cannot reduce our liberties. They cannot, by themselves, cause that much terror. It’s our reaction to terrorism that determines whether or not their actions are ultimately successful. That we allow governments to do these things to us—to effectively do the terrorists’ job for them—is the greatest harm of all.

Complete safety is an illusion. A fantasy. I know most people don’t want to actually think about that, but the truth is that living is a terminal disease and there’s more than a fair chance you will suffer your share of accidents along the way. Accept that, and you can go through your life trying to minimize those while maximizing your happiness. But if you are obsessed with never being at risk – if you let fear control you – then you will be controlled by others.

I’ve written a lot about terrorism (64 tags), and violence (82), and civil rights (102) over the years, going on and on about how our privacy and even our dignity have been eroded by unthinking fear. I guess I have long since passed the point of being a crank about this in general and the TSA in particular.

But this is important. Essential, I would say, for the life of our Republic. We’ve stumbled. Just as we have stumbled before in the face of a shocking attack. We’ve stumbled in blind panic. We’ve all been through a kind of societal Posttraumatic stress disorder. And the time has come to shake off the fear response, to once again engage the thinking parts of our brains. Only then can we hope to recover not just life, but also liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Jim Downey

*Of course: “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear… And when it is gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear is gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”