Wednesday, April 13, 2011

We have lost our damned minds.

You've probably heard by now about the video burning up the internet of a six-year-old being patted down by a TSA officer. If you haven't, I'll provide the video here, so you can get an idea of what people are so furious about. I will warn you that it's disturbing; I was surprised at how uncomfortable I was when watching it.

Before I say what I want to say, I have to make it very clear that I do not blame the TSA agent in the video. She was doing her job, and she did it with respect for the parents and the child and made sure to reassure the girl. At no point does the girl appear distressed or uncomfortable, and I give credit to the agent doing the pat down. In fact, I give a lot of credit to TSA agents as a whole. I've only very rarely encountered a TSA agent who seemed gruff or unprofessional. When I flew out of Newark, NJ last September, the TSA agent who patiently went through my bag and explained to me what could and couldn't go through the checkpoint was very friendly and smiled the whole time, and never once tried to intimidate or threaten me.

But this is absurd. There is a widely quoted statement attributed to Benjamin Franklin that is often cited when speaking about the current state of airport security: "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." Apparently, there are people in my country who feel they are smarter than Benjamin Franklin and more important than the Constitution.

I'm a fan of the fourth amendment, which reads: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." When you read this, and you think about our current airport security policies, you have to kind of wonder at what point "wants to use an airplane to reach a destination" began to fall under "probable cause". This six-year-old, if we're to assume that TSA is not violating the Constitution of The United States, somehow gave the agents at the security checkpoint probable cause to assume that she had contraband of some kind hidden on her person.

At this point, I think it's fair to say that we as a people are not looking to TSA to stop drug runners and mules the way we expected airport security to do pre-9/11. We're looking to TSA to stop hijackings and bombings, and that does seem to be their sole focus. We're also expecting them to do this, and it is a rightful expectation, without profiling passengers. So, in keeping with their mission, this search of a six-year-old girl was completely reasonable. The question should not be "Why are we searching six-year-old girls," but "Why are we allowing these searches in the first place."

Many people will attest to the need for heightened security in airports based on the fact that 9/11 occurred at all. But 9/11 was an inevitability. The World Trade Center was a complex of seven buildings housing some of the most financially powerful companies in the United States, as well as offices that worked in close conjunction with the infrastructure of the United States. The towers themselves had been targeted for terrorist attack before, as had the other buildings the 9/11 terrorists had chosen for destruction in the attack. Airport security was not responsible for these attacks, nor could increased security in airports have stopped the events from occurring if the terrorists had chosen some other method of attack.

Somehow, though, we continue to see "averting another 9/11" as a perfectly logical reason to subject travelers to unlawful search in airports. "It hasn't happened again!" proponents of these measures will state with pride, which is absurd. If we were to base the fact that 9/11 hasn't happened again in the ten years since the attack and attribute this victory to our security measures, then our security measures lose purely on the basis that before 9/11, 9/11 hadn't happened at all. The first commercial flight in the United States flew in 1914, and 9/11 happened in 2001. That's a pretty impressive track record, in my opinion, for our old security measures. The problem with this method of accounting is that you can't prove a negative. We can't prove that our current measures have diverted terrorist plots.

At this point, someone reading might be saying, "Fine, Jen, if you don't like it, don't fly. There's no right to fly in this country!" Absolutely, there is no "right to fly". But pre-9/11, it was an accepted risk, albeit a very, very small one, that someone might hijack or blow up your plane. The scale of 9/11 seems to have thrown us all out of whack, to the point that we are willing to give up our freedom for safety. Not real safety, but the illusion of safety. The comfortable feeling when we get on that plane that no one will be planning to blow it up or drive it into a building, because there are security measures in place to prevent it. But no one on those planes that were destroyed in 9/11 thought, as they got on that plane, that someone would be killing them on that flight, because all the passengers had been through security. When the planes actually were hijacked, no one fought back, because there was a certain expectation of how hijackings are conducted. None of those passengers or pilots or security check point workers could predict the future, any more than TSA is able to predict the future now. It's not a fault on anyone's part, it's just how the world is.

So, if you don't like it, don't fly? How about we do this, instead: rather than subject everyone in the country to degrading public search without just cause, rather than ask passengers to show strangers images of their naked bodies, rather than have our children groped by strangers in public, rather than hand over our rights to our own bodies to our government, we accept that airline travel has inherent risk. We accept that our country has enemies, and that those enemies may attack us. We accept that for all the freedom we have, there comes a cost, and at times that cost is very, very high.

I'm not advocating a return to the days of getting on an airplane with a sword as carryon, which, no kidding at all, I did in 1996 on a flight from Malaga to New York. I'm advocating a return to our senses. Right now, we're trying to outthink the terrorists, to the point that our suspicion will begin to hamper us. "A guy put a bomb in his shoe! Check everybody's shoes!" only works until the terrorists know that we're checking shoes, and then they move on to the next plan, or the next venue. Terrorist plots that the United States have thwarted since 9/11 have been predominately focused on fuel lines and public utilities, not airlines. That's not to say, "They're done, let's completely drop our guard," but "Perhaps we need to shift our focus slightly." There has to be a happy medium on the spectrum that is, on the low end, "Get on a plane with a sword," and on the high end, "Stick our fingers in a six-year-old's underpants."

I love my country. I love being an American. But I also love sanity. "If you don't like it, don't fly," to me, smacks of misplaced faith that our government can protect us from every inevitability, and that is not what our government was intended to do. So, I say to to everyone with a "don't like it, don't fly," attitude, if you don't like the reality that air travel carries an incredibly slight risk, don't fly, and allow the rest of us to travel with our rights in tact. And as for protecting the people on the ground, let's all accept that as long as our country has enemies, we are all potential targets with, again, a very, very slight risk of our lives being ended by terrorism, just like every other citizen of every other country in the world.

Our founding fathers were very cognizant of the fact that should their revolution fail, they would be put to death for their cause. We owe it to them to preserve the ideals they stood for, even if it means feeling slightly less safe when seated across the aisle from an obviously deranged and death hungry kindergartener on an airplane.

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