Saturday, December 11, 2010

Abolish the TSA

While I'd prefer to avoid discussions of current policy, America's present approach to policy is so noxious and "in your face" that it's hard to blog on anything else. Federal government power has greatly expanded of late, particularly under the Bush and Obama regimes; both have greatly expanded the government's ability to intervene in the economy and both have waged war on our civil liberties. The invention of the airport Gestapo (a.k.a. TSA) is a case in point.

A friend of mine worked for the TSA for a short time. He is an ex-USMC parachutist and ex-SWAT team member (from a very rough jurisdiction). He did a short term with the TSA, and quit in disgust. He told me he'd never worked for such a dysfunctional, corrupt, and useless bureaucracy. The TSA is the agency that decided it needed to x-ray or grope airline pilots, allegedly to make certain said pilots didn't put explosive into their underwear so that they could crash their airplanes. Good lord! Underpants bombs are extremely ineffective at best, and if a pilot really wants the aircraft to crash, I think we all can understand that s/he has much more effective methods... like simply crashing the plane. There's no reason at all to scan pilots, if the purpose is ensuring safety.

I don't believe that Janet Napolitano, or Michael Chertoff before her, are really so stupid as to think such scanning makes sense from a security standpoint. So why do they develop such inane policies? Most critics call the TSA's shenanigans "security theatre," meaningless activity designed to make people think TSA is doing something. In this view, such "security theatre" satisfies the public demand for "something to be done" about terrorism, and also helps justify the $8 billion devoted to TSA (and $43 billion spent on DHS) this year.

I'm not so sanguine. I lived in the former Soviet Union; a fair amount of the old ways of doing things remained in place, and I experienced firsthand some of what the Soviets did to cow and control their populace. Subjecting people to warrantless ID checks and searches, humiliating them, and controlling their ability to travel is the essence of the Soviet system, not the gulag. America is becoming increasingly Soviet. I'm inclined to think this is all about controlling citizens, not terrorists.

Does any of this security theatre make us safer? Security expert Bruce Schneier has an eloquent analysis that suggests the new TSA measures are utterly useless for security. He discusses the technical aspects of detecting explosives, the inanity of the new TSA measures, and then observes:

"The truth is that exactly two things have made air travel safer since 9/11: reinforcing cockpit doors and convincing passengers they need to fight back. The TSA should continue to screen checked luggage. They should start screening airport workers. And then they should return airport security to pre-9/11 levels and let the rest of their budget be used for better purposes."

Schneier also has a word for us, the America people: "We have a job here, too, and it's to be indomitable in the face of terrorism. The goal of terrorism is to terrorize us: to make us afraid, and make our government do exactly what the TSA is doing. When we react out of fear, the terrorists succeed even when their plots fail. But if we carry on as before, the terrorists fail -- even when their plots succeed."

We should indeed be indomitable in the face of terrorism, and in the face of intimidation as well...including intimidation from our own government. Schneier doesn't go far enough. The TSA should be abolished. As my friend suggested, it's already a sclerotic bureaucracy. We need to wipe out its "institutional memory" and move to a system compatible with individual liberty. If we need a baggage screening service, let's abolish TSA and start from scratch. But mostly let's just abolish TSA.

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