Security Schizophrenia

On the bright, beautiful morning of September 11, 2001, I was tasked with remerchandising the cold beer at a drug store in Henderson, Nevada. The job, needless to say, did not go the way I thought it would. That morning I was at least nominally in charge of a crew of 4 gentlemen drawn from the other major wholesalers in Southern Nevada. On a normal day, the chatty group was boisterous; a constant stream of complaints and “suggestions” about the set that I designed (usually “suggesting” where I might place it), chit-chat about family, rants about football, and stories told by resident historian Frank filled the air.

On this day there were no conversations about beer, no ribbing about sales or football. The work was done with a quick and barely concealed anger; the only discussions were over whether the bombs we dropped on Afghanistan would be nuclear or conventional. On that day and the days after, America was focused and united; we knew what our shared task was. We would hunt done those who attacked us, and relentlessly work to secure our nation against any such attack in the future. It might be that answers come easier when the bullets are still flying, because September of 2001 seems to be the last time that our shared task was so straightforward.

This isn’t a column about George W. Bush, Iraq, Guantanamo, or torture; this column is about what our definition of “safe” really is. The confusing months after 9/11 were harrowing; terrorists added to the panic by unleashing an anthrax attack during those weeks, and Americans began to be afflicted by a new and profound disease. While most Americans were willing to declare that the terrorists hadn’t changed anything, most Americans were equally open to the idea of changing everything. People interviewed on the street began to say things like; “I am ok with that if it means us being a little safer” and, “I am ok with that if it means catching the terrorists.” These are the sentiments of those about to willingly cede their freedoms.

And so we gave up many freedoms with smiles on our faces; “they” wouldn’t read our email, or listen to our phone calls, or lock us away without a warrant or trial unless we were terrorists. Precious few of us asked how “they” would make the determination of who were terrorists. Such are the questions that go unasked by those about to willingly cede their freedoms.

Some nine years after the attacks, we the people are picking an odd time to wake up to our lost freedoms; an odd time and an odd target for our national frustration. At a time when international security forces, the U.S. military, NATO, and others have pushed terrorist networks to their breaking point, the ability of those networks to deliver weapons against U.S. domestic targets is greatly diminished. As a result, those networks have resorted to difficult and unreliable delivery systems; you may have heard about them, underwear and shoes. Like all of the other times that intelligence has caught on to a new way of killing Americans, our security has adopted new ways of stopping those methods.

Friends, you may already have figured out where this is going. There are only three ways of keeping underwear bombs off of airliners; “touching” them, “seeing” them, or “smelling” them. The technology to “smell” explosives reliably is getting better every day, and there are dogs that can accomplish the task as well; but you know where the dog must put his or her nose. The technology to “see” the explosives is here now; but explosives aren’t the only thing we see. A professionally trained security officer can “touch” the explosives; but you know where the officer must put his or her hands.

So here we are, in 2010, faced with the only device that has come close to bringing down a U.S. airliner since 9/11; and we aren’t comfortable with any of the methods of catching it. Now caught in the crossfire is the T.S.A., an agency that undoubtedly has many fine employees, and certainly has many poor ones. An agency that has remained an underfunded step-child since its birth. An agency that struggles uphill against unrealistic wage targets. The recent and ridiculous flap over the wages of federal workers versus those of the private sector brings an interesting flavor to this conversation; do you want the security officers responsible for airline security to have the same training and pay as the guy at the bowling alley?

Over the last decade, we the people have allowed the standards of due process and habeas corpus to be gutted. We allowed crimes to be committed in our name for which we have, in our recent history, executed foreign nationals. We stood by and did nothing while major telecommunications companies conspired with the national security structure to record and store all of our cell phone conversations. We did all of this in the absence of any direct evidence that any of it made us safer. In typical American fashion, we didn’t care until our liberty was tied to our underwear.

The Rational Middle has absolutely no idea how this situation should be resolved, and I personally haven’t met many T.S.A. agents I wanted to be searched by. I would like to see reasonable alternatives suggested by those who complain the loudest. I would like to see the media, which is loving the ratings that “evil” or “stupid” T.S.A. officers bring to their special reports, actually report the whole story. I am not holding my breath for any of this to happen. If there exists a cure for our schizophrenia, then it probably goes hand in hand with shutting off the t.v.

The Rational Middle is listening…

One thought on “Security Schizophrenia

  1. Thank you for the thoughtful analysis of this issue. There are several things I am hearing from the shrill critics of TSA behaviors that I know that I am interested if you have any thoughts on. The first is that the invasive searches are unnecessary, that there are alternatives. The favorite alternative advanced comes from the exhead of security for El Al, the Israeli airline, who never had an incident despite many would-be attackers. The gentleman reports interviewing every passenger that boarded any flight.

    The second comment made is that TSA behavior is just security theater. The scans and searches provide little actual security, particularly when the procedures are well-known in advance. All they actually accomplish is to give people a sense that “everything possible is being done to protect fliers” while the procedures are actually full of holes that could easily be exploited by would-be bombers.

    The other response that I hear is if we are going to be molested in order to fly, that we have already given up our most fundamental freedoms–it is tantamount to losing the “war” with the terrorists.

    Thank you.

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