Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Petty Tyrants, at Most

H/T to John Brown's Public Diplomacy and Blog Review for this remarkable quote:

"Security has become an all-devouring American God stiffened by righteousness, stripped of judgment, armed with technology. This deity knows no bounds, brooks no dissent."

Wow! Who are those righteous, reckless, well-armed omnipotent deities? And how can I become one?

Imagine my disappointment to find out that the writer is just ranting about airport screeners. It's TSA Inspectors who know no bounds and brook no dissent, etc., etc.

The usual airport scene: much-traveled pros huffing at the dilatory amateurs, harried people removing shoes and belts and laptops, sparring over trays like irritable kids, getting all the stuff lined up with production-line precision — only to find themselves thrust into one of the new full-body scanners that delivers an image of passengers in a state of near nakedness to some security official who, at whim, may order a repeat of the arms-raised, all-revealing little humiliation.

Philip Roth’s “indigenous American berserk” has gone into overdrive. It’s the new normal.

Is this right and forever? Security has become an all-devouring American God stiffened by righteousness, stripped of judgment, armed with technology. This deity knows no bounds, brooks no dissent. The threats are real — witness the cargo-plane bomb plot — but the right balance between security and freedom has been lost. I’m with Martin Broughton, the British Airways chairman who said recently that some security checks were “completely redundant.”

There's nothing new here. Everybody hates TSA. See this and this, to take only two examples in the news today.

Hating TSA is the national pastime. Even TSA employees hate TSA, which is how it came to be ranked #220 out of 224 federal agencies in employee satisfaction.

Those guys with the latex gloves aren't omnipotent, they're just extremely irritable.


Rob Pugh said...

Not omnipotent? So you're saying there's someway around their ever increasingly invasive and pointless security theater? We can safely get to our destination while "defying their authoritay." Oh, no, I guess not.

It's getting near a tipping point having to choose between the backscatter naked cams and the grope-a-lot option.

TSB said...

There are no good options at an airport anymore. The low-level TSA guys are trapped by the system as much as the passengers and aircrews are, so I think it's pointless to rail against them.

It is, of course, just a system for bothering people. Scanners and pat-downs can't detect a threat such as the Underpants Bomber. And even TSA isn't going to go to body cavity searches, so passengers will remain free to carry anything they want onto an aircraft just so long as it fits inside their rectums.

I hope that someday everyone will come to their collective senses about reasonable risk acceptance. But I'm not optimistic that it will be someday soon.

Rob Pugh said...

Much of what you say makes calm, rational sense, but I do take issue with "The low-level TSA guys are trapped by the system as much as the passengers and aircrews are..."

This strikes me as false equivalency - they get paid *by* the system to *enforce* the system and *aren't* subject to the pointless, demeaning searches that those of us just trying to get home are - so that's not really 'trapped.'

And while otoh railing against the low level folks 'just doing their jobs' seems pointless, until enough people push back en masse, where they can, which is at the level they're engaged, nothing will change.

Of course pushing back at all will likely cost you your flight, you money, your time and some of your freedom. GAH!

A Daring Adventure said...

Oh, yes. I would imagine (having been there and done that) that TSA employees hate TSA more than anyone.

You can't just... quit. If you had all the money in the world and didn't need to earn more, you wouldn't have taken a job at TSA in the first place. But good luck getting a non-TSA federal job. In all your non-TSA interviews, your interviewers smirk and ask how things are at TSA. And good luck quitting TSA and leaving the federal job behind, with its great benefits.

The folks who run the scanners and such will ALWAYS run the scanners, for there is no upward movement in TSA. So not only do they hate their jobs and hate their agency, they hate doing what they're doing... the know that they have no hope of ever stopping doing what they're doing, for they are totally stuck with the inability to quit and the inability to move out of that position... it's a nasty, nasty situation and I feel for everyone, having been both an airline passenger and the wife of a stuck TSA employee.

TSB said...

Airport screening is the perfect storm of frustration. Passengers have to do the security dance when they're already stressed by airline schedules (if you put up a fight, you won't make that flight), and the TSA screeners are trying to process passengers through a single choke point as fast as they are being fed in from multiple check-in counters (otherwise the airlines and their schedules get even further screwed up and unprofitable). Everybody can see the system doesn't work, and everybody's mad at everybody else.

I've gotten past being angry, and now I just feel sorry for everybody involved, even the TSA Inspectors. I'm not past being angry at TSA management and their Congressional oversight, however.

My theory is that TSA, Congress, and even the traveling public, all have a mindset that prevents them from seeing how you can do anything other than mindlessly apply every possible inspection measure to 100% of passengers. This is ultimately a constitutional matter, because people think that unless you make every old lady in a wheel chair take off her shoes and belt, then you don't have a legal right to make anybody else do it, either. That happens to be the current position of the ACLU.

This situation will never get better until Congress gets up and takes political responsibility for a risk-based system of airline security. By that, I mean one that considers the whole range of threats and vulnerabilities and consequences, and then accepts a reasonable measure of risk. Screen some people more than others, and fight it out with the ACLU in court.

Maybe that’s expecting too much of politicians. But I’d suggest we rail at our Congressmen for a while and see what happens.