It seems much glee has been heaped upon the current administration for the recent “upgrades” to security at airports. I’ve heard all sorts of wonderful phrases, such as “pornoscanners” and “pat down rape.” I’ve even heard people refer to the institution of these policies as the same sort of warrentless search as that of colonial period pirates. All in all, it seems to me that it misses the point.
The TSA and the Obama administration isn’t doing anything new, so this isn’t a condemnation of the current administration specifically. Instead, this is the way government works and it annoys me to my core.
Governments don’t make things safe. Governments sell safety. And safety, sadly, is an illusion.
Bruce Schneier said it best in his NYTimes opinion piece “A Waste of Money and Time.” In it, he claims:
Exactly two things have made airplane travel safer since 9/11: reinforcing the cockpit door, and convincing passengers they need to fight back. Everything else has been a waste of money.
I have to agree. Oh, I can offhandedly think of one or two minor improvements to that basic plan, but that’s trifles. In the end, those actions made us safer, either of them would have prevented 9/11 completely as the hijackers counted on the ability to access the cockpit and cow the passengers. Those options are no longer viable.
So if scanners and pat downs aren’t safer, what are they? Tools in the sale of safety. And safety is big business. There are those lobbying to get the next level of “safety” sold to the TSA and the public, all for the buck they’ll make playing on our fears. In a very real way, these pushers of fear are as much terrorists as the ones carrying guns and bombs.
I can understand the governmental allure. A panicky public is less likely to calm down over simple changes as they are over what seem to be sweeping ones. Even if, in the final look, the changes are neither changes or particularly sweeping. The basics of the terror game have not changed. We implement security, they work around it. Same as before 9/11. Same as always.
The actual game changer was 9/11 itself. By isolating the cabin and convincing the public that it must fight back, we’ve changed the way potential hijackers think. Prior to 9/11, the security thinking was “common strategy.” The idea being that it was in the common good of both passengers and hijackers to get the plane on the ground and to the place the hijackers wanted to go. Now the thinking is “calculated risk,” meaning what are the riskes not only to crew and passengers, but to people on the ground. Calculated risk prevented Richard Reid from igniting his shoe. It also prevented the “underwear bomber.” But calculated risk wasn’t a device purchased from a large multi-national corporation with an active lobby. It was a change in thinking.
And it may cause a change in thinking in the way the terrorists think as well. I’ve always thought that the best thing about terrorists had to be how stupid they are. Not ignorant, because they can be quite smart. But stupid. They have a weakness for showmanship, and use terror like a sledgehammer. They target airlines for the prestige. They target the World Trade Center for the spectacle.
Had they wanted to truly induce terror, they would have picked different targets and tactics. The bridges in Memphis. Noodle Junction in Birmingham. Talk to the IRA, they knew how to induce terror in Britain and it wasn’t by attacking high profile targets. It was by attacking common targets that impacted a wide spread of people. Transportation interchanges, natural barriers to transit, the food chain.
So while I may get a chuckle out of the rhetoric around the scans and pat downs, it is something far deeper that gets me angry.