On Security Theater

(Updated below)

I assume that y’all are more or less familiar with the TSA’s new “security” measures — you get the choice of submitting to a full-body imaging scan which produces detailed images of your naked body, which images are then supposed to be but not necessarily actually destroyed, or of submitting to an “enhanced pat-down” (and if you think that sounds a lot like “enhanced interrogation technique,” well, that’s maybe not such a coincidence) in which a TSA employee of the same gender (as long as you’re cis and your gender presentation fits the conventional binary) gropes your entire body, chest and groin included.  If you’re inside security and try to refuse both procedures, you will neither be allowed on the plane nor allowed to leave the airport without being threatened with arrest and hefty fines.  I’m dashing this post off quickly, so I won’t include links to sources — I’m confident that Google will back me up.

A few points about this situation, though they’re probably not going to be new ideas to anyone.

  • There is no reason whatsoever to believe this will in any way make air travel safer.  People who want to sneak things onto planes will still find ways to do so, because people who want to sneak things onto planes are not stupid, and will be able to figure out, just as I have figured out, and just as you have probably figured out, that neither the grope-down nor the naked scanner will reveal any objects hidden inside a person’s body.  People who, for example, want to blow up a plane while they’re on it are probably not going to be deterred by the idea of sneaking the explosives on by swallowing them or inserting them rectally — after all, drug smugglers have been doing so for ages.
  • What makes air travel safer is good investigative and intelligence work, so that plots against air travel can be stopped in the planning stage, before anyone gets on a plane.
  • Approximately one in six American women has been the victim of rape or sexual assault in her lifetime.  That means about 8% (at least) of the flying public are now legally required to relive their sexual assaults.  (The remaining 92% are “merely” required to submit to an initial sexual assault.)
  • A common refrain from defenders of the new measures is “I’d rather be groped than blown up.”  It’s crucially important to try to get through to people who argue that, that being groped in no way reduces their already-minuscule chances of being blown up.
  • Another common claim is “we have to do anything we can to prevent another 9/11.”  But, aside from the aforementioned intelligence work, which we aren’t doing as much of as we should because we’re distracted by nonsense security theater like this — and aside from the bill being sponsored by Rep. Markey which would require screening of 100% of air cargo, an entirely sensible measure — we have already done all we can to prevent “another 9/11.”  Namely: we locked the cockpit doors.  It will never again be possible for hijackers to gain control of an airplane and fly it into a building, killing thousands; and unless you’re just invoking the September 11th, 2001 attacks for cheap political gain you have to accept that nothing short of that would be “another 9/11.”  (The September 11th hijackers themselves also had a hand in ensuring that another such attack could never happen: they let all air passengers know, from now on, that it is not safe to assume hijackers are just after ransom and intend to the hostages unscathed once their demands are met.)
  • We have to assume that the people in charge of devising and promulgating these policies — the TSA, DHS, and up the chain to the President — are themselves also not stupid, and know just as well as some guy with a blog that there’s no plausible way the new screening methods will improve security in any meaningful sense.  We have to conclude, then, that improving security is not their purpose.
  • Finally, even supposing that there were some way in which these measures would reduce the already-minuscule chances of dying in a terrorist attack, it wouldn’t matter.  It wouldn’t matter because these searches are clearly in violation of the 4th Amendment: they are neither reasonable, nor spurred by immediate probable cause, nor backed by warrants issued on evidence of probable cause and describing the specific things to be searched for and seized.  This would be plainly true even if these techniques were effective, and the fact is that they aren’t.  (In DC v. Heller, for example, the Supreme Court made it clear that even a law which is demonstrably effective at reducing crime does not supersede [their interpretations of] the Constitution.)

Update: Of course, another thing to keep in mind here, and it’s something I’m as guilty of as anybody, is that arbitrary harassment and abuse by authorities who can’t be effectively held accountable for it have just been the status quo for many marginalized populations in the US, especially people of color, GLBTQI people, people with disabilities, poor people, etc.  It’s only now that affluent white men — John Tyner, a software engineer; Penn Jillette, a millionaire comedian — are being subjected to this kind of treatment that there appears to be some serious outrage growing.  Only now that white men aren’t treated differently from those other people.  There are all kinds of ways in which that doesn’t say anything good about our society.


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