Right Thinking From The Left Coast
If everything seems under control, you're not going fast enough. - Mario Andretti

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Ongoing Rapiscan Saga

Once again, I find myself supporting one side of an issue because the opposing side is so condescending.

In this case, it’s the X-ray backscatter devices and gropings law-abiding Americans are having to endure at airports.  I’ve been hitting this all week, so I’ll just give the edited highlights: there is little evidence of their effectiveness and none that they would have prevented any recent plots.  There is concern that experts have significantly underestimated the health risk of the X-ray devices.  And, on general principle, I oppose policies that treat average Americans like criminals.  This is why I oppose gun control, support the Fourth Amendment and oppose drug testing.  Finally, Rapiscan is a very powerful company that numbers, among its many lobbyists, Michael Chertoff, who is using his former DHS position to shill for them.

But the editorials in support of the devices are what is really turning me over the edge. Radley Balko breaks down Time magazine’s recent editorial on the subject, in keeping with his theme that the media does not have a liberal bias but a statist one:

Altman doesn’t really get into whether these invasive new measures will actually make flying any safer, or whether the x-ray machines themselves are safe for passengers (where’s that damned Precautionary Principle when you need it?). No, his evidence that all this talk about the government abrogating our rights in the name of security theater is mere “drama”, “tailor-made for the Internet’s ephemeral obsessions” is a series of quotes saying as much from . . . members of the government.

It’s especially rich to see this in Time, a magazine with a long history of ginning up hysteria over the likes of Pokemon, satanic cults, dirty words, Internet porn, and has never met a faddish new drug that wasn’t just as bad as heroin. Of course, Time’s attempts to gin up moral panic have always at root been about people exercising their personal freedom in ways Time writers and editors find objectionable; the stories are always wrapped in urgent we must do something appeals for government to protect people from themselves. The TSA backlash is about government violating personal freedom. So of course now is the hour for a Time correspondent to step up all sober-minded like to call foul on the protests.

Indeed.  If people were protesting in favor of these devices, I’m sure Time would support them.  They always give favorable coverage to people agitating to eat away at our fundamental freedom and personal dignity.

Then there’s this piece from Dana Milibank smarmily asserting that the GOP is against national security because of the delay in New Start and the opposition to the scanners.  Typical quote:

Then there’s the backlash over the new imaging and pat-downs being used to screen airport passengers for explosives. A CBS News poll found that 81 percent of Americans favor use of the new imaging machines, but Republican lawmakers feel otherwise.

This 81% figure means nothing.  It doesn’t matter if 100% of people support a policy if it’s wrong.  And I would venture that 80% of the American public has not experienced these things yet.  I haven’t, despite my travel, because I fly out of a small airport and often to foreign countries.  We’ll see if that figure stays up when people experience this system first-hand.

In the House, Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) has already introduced legislation rescinding the new security. Meanwhile, Republican senators, rediscovering their inner civil libertarians, this week took turns criticizing Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole over the administration’s tightened security.


Pistole’s response should shame Johanns and his colleagues. “If your question is, do I understand the sensitivities of people? Yes. If you’re asking, am I going to change the policies? No, because I think that it is being informed by the latest intelligence, the latest efforts by terrorists to kill our people in the air. No, I’m not going to change those policies.”

Again see the media bias.  You will rarely find a better distillation of statism than Milibank’s, which translates to “Fuck you, the government has told you to do this, you have to trust them, you ignorant ingrates.” Milibank also shows a spectacular ignorance in criticizing Ron Paul.  Paul has always been a civil libertarian, was one of the few Republicans who opposed George W. Bush’s policies and has long been a critic of the drug war (a policy the state-worshipping Milibank probably also thinks is dandy.) And this become ridiculous when you realize that Milibank is not calling out the fair weather civil libertarians who protested loudly against Bush and are silent now.

As I turn this issue over in my head, however, one factor continues to jump out at me.  Beyond Rapidscan’s profits and the safety of the devices and the Fourth Amendment and everything else, I keep returning to this though:

Janet Napolitano needs to be fired.

If these things are necessary and effective, she’s done a shitty job of making this clear.  The response of the government has been a series of “shut up and do as you’re told” statements that are increasingly angry and dismissive.  She seems completely unaware that there are tradeoffs between security and hassles and the some people may judge those tradeoffs differently than she does (assuming she judges them at all).  The DHS has completely misjudged the reaction to this.

But more importantly, it’s becoming increasingly clear that there is a disconnect between terror threats and the response of the Federal government to those threats.  During the Bush era, their airport security policies made some sense.  In response to 9/11, they banned knives on flights, locked the cockpit doors and put more sky marshalls in the air.  I would argue that the main weakness that caused 9/11 was the policy of cooperating with hijackers—a policy the passengers of United 93 firmly ended.  But all of that made sense.  It all directly addressed what had happened.

Then after Richard Reid, we began scanning shoes.  I think this gets a bit silly when we’re talking about my daughter’s sandals and other governments don’t do this, thinking it a waste of time.  But at least it was a targeted response.  Then they banned liquids in response to the UK plot.  This was pushing the edge a bit since it’s not clear that liquid explosives are a real menace.  But again, the policy matched the threat.

Since Obama and Napolitano have taken over, however, a disconnect has developed.  They look less like a government responding to specific threats than a government that has a list of actions and is using each incident to check them off.  A man tries to explode his underwear, so they forbid people from standing up when the plane is near to landing, which had nothing to do with what happened (primarily an intelligence failure).  Cargo bombs are sent out --- exploiting a weakness specifically cited by previous committees—and we get an upping of the body scanners and pat-downs.  This has nothing to do with what happened.

Any way you slice it, Napolitano is showing an incompetence when it comes to dealing with the public.  Either she is not explaining this policy well or she does not care whether the policy is connected to specific threats.  I would argue that one of the basic jobs of the DHS secretary is to coordinate security responses to the both specific threats and the public’s tolerance for them.  If she can’t do it, isn’t there someone else who can?

Update: Well, at least the Democrats have a solution to our TSA woes: unions.

Update: An op-ed points out something I did not know: airports can opt out of TSA and use private screening.  Here’s hoping.

Update: Hoo, boy.

Posted by Hal_10000 on 11/20/10 at 08:48 PM in Politics   Law, & Economics  • (0) TrackbacksPermalink
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