Why We Are Angry at the TSA

The Transportation Security Agency's new airport passenger-screening procedures, which force airline passengers to submit to a full-body scan or an invasive frisk, is turning Dick Cheney’s biggest fans into latter-day Ben Franklins.

The conservative, torture-friendly Washington Times, declared that "a balance must be struck between reasonable security measures and the maintenance of a free society." Abu Ghraib was a fraternity prank, but getting frisked at the airport is a sign of, to quote the Times, "Big Sister's police state." Hatred of the TSA makes for strange bedfellows, with some conservatives now sounding like card-carrying members of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"We're giving Americans two unpalatable options now," says ACLU legislative counsel Chris Calabrese. "They can either submit to a virtual strip search or a very aggressive grope. We've never seen that before."

The TSA has taken some important steps to alleviate privacy concerns by putting the machine operator in a separate room and blurring the faces of people going through the machine. But it's not hard to understand why people don't like their options.

The amount of freedom Americans have handed over to their government in the years since the 9/11 attacks is difficult to convey. We've simply accepted the idea of the government secretly listening in on our phone calls and demanding private records from companies without warrants. Many shiver at the notion of trying suspected terrorists in civilian courts, and even at the idea of granting the accused legal representation. The last president of the United States brags openly about ordering people to be tortured, and the current one asserts the authority to kill American citizens he believes to be terrorists overseas.

But most of these measures are either invisible enough to put out of mind or occur outside of what most Americans can imagine happening to them. As long as it's just Muslims being tortured and foreigners being detained indefinitely, the price we pay to feel secure seems all too abstract. The TSA's new passenger-screening measures just happen to fall on the political and economic elites who can make their complaints heard. It's not happening to those scary Arabs anymore. It's happening to "us."

The Washington Times made this distinction clear in another editorial, attacking the administration for failing to properly single out Muslims instead of forcing all Americans into the choice between a virtual strip search and being groped. "TSA believes an 80-year-old grandmother deserves the same level of scrutiny at an airport terminal checkpoint as a 19-year-old male exchange student from Yemen," the Times complained. Racial profiling isn't statistically any more accurate than random checks, but the point is that these outrages upon personal dignity would be less outrageous if they were directed at people with Arabic last names.

But conservatives bear a lot of blame for their current predicament. This comprehensive assault on individual freedom didn't occur in a vacuum; it occurred because conservatives were successful in frightening Americans into choosing security over liberty every time the choice was before them, and because America's elected officials take being blamed for a terrorist attack more seriously than their oath to protect the Constitution. While the scanners have been in development for years, their deployment was rapidly accelerated in the aftermath of last year's attempted underwear bombing, as the TSA became even more concerned about the threat of nonmetallic objects. Conservatives must now face the Frankenstein they created by breathlessly hyping the threat of terrorism for political gain: A recent CBS poll found that 81 percent of Americans support the new machines.

As to whether the scanners actually make Americans safer, that's very uncertain. The TSA has been responsible for researching screening technologies since it was created in 2002, sometimes with poor results. Its first project, the Explosives Trace Portal, meant to detect small amounts of the material used in explosives, proved to be mostly useless, but only after the TSA had spent $30 million and had actually deployed some of them in the field.

The current scanners were being evaluated at a time when, according to a 2009 Government Accountability Office report, the TSA had neither implemented a cost-benefit analysis of its passenger-screening technologies nor established "performance measures that assess how deployed technologies have reduced or mitigated risk." As of today, the GAO says the TSA still hasn't done either, despite having deployed the scanners nationwide. A TSA spokesman defended the machines by saying it had done an analysis concluding that the machines offered an ability to detect nonmetallic threats that could "only otherwise be obtained by increasing manpower to conduct physical pat-down searches." However, a March GAO report found that it "remains unclear" whether the body scanners would have been able to detect the type of explosive that underwear bomber Umar Abdulmutallab attempted to employ. Once again, we've traded liberty for security without even having a good idea of how much security we're really getting.

The possibility of Americans being saved by some benevolent judicial activist aren't very high, because the courts have generally granted the government wide latitude when it comes to airport security measures. So if Americans want more effective and less invasive airport security procedures, they're going to have to do it the hard way and demand that their legislators actively work toward developing them.

As the holidays approach, conservatives livid over the new procedures might take a moment during the humiliating inconvenience of a virtual strip search or TSA grope session to think about what indefinite detention in an island prison or a week of forced sleep deprivation feels like. The peril of provoking mass panic every time an incompetent terrorist lights himself on fire might become more apparent.

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