Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The TSA and the Public

For all the hubbub about the new security measures, here's what you will actually face - most people still go through the venerable metal detectors. The new "naked scanners" are slower and there is a limited number. When one is open then the next person in line is directed through it. You only get the new pat-down if you refuse the naked scanner or if TSA has a reason to suspect you, even though you have gone through the scanner or the metal detector. That's when you get the full-body grope. There are several medical procedures that will cause the pat-down. These can include joint replacements, mastectomies, a colostomy or urostomy bag, or even a large scar.

The new procedures are a reaction to last Christmas's underwear bomber. They are not meant to actually catch terrorists. They are meant to make the public feel safer and to introduce enough certainty that future terrorists will not repeat tactics that the previously used to successfully smuggle a bomb past security.

Does that make you feel better about grandmother-groping?

The reason that the government reacted this way is the unspoken assumption that TSA has to treat everyone as a potential terrorist. If you buy an airline ticket then you are automatically under a presumption of guilty and have to prove yourself innocent. And, you have to re-prove your innocence every time you fly.

The obvious alternative to this would be to profile the passengers. The problem is that profiling is forbidden. Rather than take the chance that an innocent person who fits a profile might be checked, we check everyone, knowing that 99.999% will be innocent.

I can see taking basic precautions meaning the metal detectors and procedures used prior to 9/11. That's because there were several skyjackings in the early 1970s and these precautions put a stop to them. But terrorism is a different prospect. Blowing up yourself along with an airplane full of people is not something that most people will do. They need extra motivation.

Currently, the only group that provides that motivation is Islam and, even then, it is limited to a small sub-set of Islam. The Underwear bomber is a classic example. He had recently traveled to countries known to host radical groups. Plus, his father had written to the State Department saying that his son was a danger. Even without the warning from his father, there were enough red flags in his behavior to have triggered extra measures. On the other end of the spectrum, the Millennium Bomber was caught in 1999 because he acted suspicious.

The thing to remember about profiling is that innocent people are going to be embarrassed either way but in the absence of profiling, an extra level of insult is added. The process stops being about safety and more about continuing the process. 

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