Friday, November 26, 2010

Travel and terror

There is an excellent opinion piece by Roger Cohen in the New York Times this morning that mirrors many of my recent thoughts on the growth of Homeland Security and the TSA. If you are like 80% of Americans, then your attitude probably echoes most of my friends, somewhere along the lines of, "I'm willing to be scanned, and patted down, and all the rest, if it will keep terrorists off my plane." To some extent, I would agree.

There are only two problems with this attitude. First, it probably won't keep terrorists off your airplane. Mostly because there probably aren't going to be any terrorists on your plane. But also because each new layer of security is a response to the latest threat, and it's just added to all of the previous layers. At the same time, our enemies have already moved on to a new plan. They may be evil and/or crazy, but they are generally not stupid.

It is telling that security officials in Britain and Israel, arguably two of the best countries at securing transportation resources, have been critical of the TSA's approach. The idea that technology and procedures can be 100% effective against a suicidal human enemy is dangerously flawed, and creates a money pit into which billions upon billions of dollars will inevitably flow.

The second problem is more fundamental to the nature of the conflict. Life is 100% fatal. We can't choose whether to die, but we can choose how we live. And the United States was built on the idea that individual liberty is an "inalienable right" worth spending lives to defend.

Surrendering our liberties to protect our freedoms makes about as much sense as it sounds like it does. This is exactly what terrorists want. That's why they call them that. If they can disrupt our lives and make us afraid, then they have succeeded. It was never about how many people they could kill.

As Cohen writes, "America is a nation of openness, boldness and risk-taking. Close this nation, cow it, constrict it and you unravel its magic." Moreover, I personally believe that allowing a few wackos on the other side of the world to disrupt our lives and commerce in order to achieve some impossible guarantee of personal safety disrespects the sacrifices being made by our soldiers every day. The best way to support our troops is to be prepared to absorb a tiny bit of the risk they face. Have we really become so timid?

And is this really the best use of our shared resources? Terrorists on airplanes have killed around 3000 Americans in the past decade, depending on how one wants to count. About twice that many American soldiers have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In that same period, around one hundred and fifty thousand people in the U.S. were victims of homicide. Should we expand our security procedures to the rest of our society? Would you be willing to submit to current TSA security procedures at the mall, your church, the local stadium, or your child's school?

I spent a good part of my career working with Federal bureaucracies, and I can see where this TSA thing is headed. I doubt if there is a silver bullet solution to this problem, but I know the way we're going will result mostly in more expense, more inconvenience, and very little increase in protection. And it's past time we started the conversation.


  1. Excellent post.

    This needs wider publication -- submit it as an essay in your papers op-ed section. The last paragraphs beginning with "Surrendering our liberties..." were the best IMO.

    Mass hysteria is fueling the fires of a fear campaign that seems to be working well for the reprobates trying to micro-manage the country...the same fear mongers who are so hypocritical it makes me ill. I don't understand how the personal lives of these same - riddled with foibles - are explained away by people who rail against the president for a hangnail.

    I agree the next targets, should the terrorists manage it at all, will be somewhere other than an airport or on a plane. Focusing on this intrusive imaging is absurd and doesn't make me feel 'secure,' as much as makes me feel the gov't is desperate and we are heading towards Orwell country...

    I will never forget the anger and despair as when i was heading home from a brain surgery - sore, weak and hurting, unable to sit well and certainly not standing - and being forced to stand and get patted down. Because I was in a wheelchair.

  2. Well said, Chris. So glad to have you as a friend.

  3. I got in an argument about this today. I'm with you one-hundred and ten percent. And I kept on mentioning the fourth amendment, and my friend kept on saying it doesn't apply to this.