April Fools

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Initial reports made it sound as though April 1 was the day the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has so eagerly awaited: airport screeners caught a real, live, honest-to-goodness terrorist! At Orlando International! With "materials… that could have been used for an explosive device" in his bag! Those "materials" weren’t the TSA’s usual trophies, either, of excess baby food or veterans’ commemorative lighters. No, here were "two galvanized pipes, end caps, two small containers carrying BBs, batteries, two containers with an unknown liquid, and bomb making literature." Finally, vindication! The $40 billion the TSA has sucked from taxpayers’ pockets since 2001 as well as seven years of warrantless searches and frustrated passengers were suddenly justified. Even better, screeners detected the bomber thanks to one of the TSA’s most anti-Constitutional and controversial programs: Behavior Detection, a.k.a., SPOT [Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques]. Now SPOT, too, was validated!

Alas, later reports chipped away at the victory. Turns out "terrorist" Kevin Brown had packed the "materials" in his checked bag, not his carry-on. Air Jamaica, Kevin’s carrier, hastened to assure customers that "the items could not have caused an explosion and the aircraft and its passengers were never at risk." Talk about taking the wind out of the TSA’s sails. Further deflating those jibs was Kevin himself. He "first told authorities he wanted to detonate the materials on a tree stump in Jamaica…" That’s harmless enough, so naturally the story changed: Kevin "later said he was going to show friends in his home country how to build explosives…" How many alternative interrogation techniques did the new and improved confession require?

Far from a terrorist, Kevin is one of those sad, injured folks on which our neoconservative rulers in general and the TSA in particular prey. A US Army veteran who was never the same after his deployment to Iraq, Kevin’s "been in and out of hospitals" with "a history of mental illness." His mother’s murder in 2005 didn’t help. The lawyer representing the family in the murder case considers Kevin "a bit unstable. I think the mother’s death would have been on his mind.” It’s easy to see why: Kevin was a baby when his father died, so his mother raised him and his brother on her own. "[She] was the breadwinner for the family," the attorney added. "She was always there for them.” I suppose Kevin should count his blessings that he’s merely in jail instead of murdered himself: the TSA doesn’t usually deal gently with depressed, distraught people.

But Kevin’s tragedies don’t shame the TSA from its crude crowing. You would think screeners had bagged Osama himself with the latest technology instead of hocus-pocus they call SPOT.

SPOT sends screeners into concourses to spy on passengers. Those whose comportment doesn’t meet the TSA’s top-secret definition of "normal" are pulled aside and interrogated. Yep, this is as abusive and arbitrary as it sounds, though the TSA pretends that it’s science.

SPOT combines the police-state tactics Israel uses in its airports with "microexpressions," looks we supposedly flash "in about 1/30th of a second" to reveal our innermost thoughts. Paul Ekman, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco, claims to have discovered microexpressions decades ago when he and a buddy sat around making faces at one another, photographing themselves, and then studying the pictures. If you think that sounds like a couple of grad students who’ve swilled their fair share of beer, you’ve got more sense than the TSA. Meanwhile, even researchers at the TSA’s parent bureaucracy, the Department of Homeland Security, admit SPOT is "unproven and potentially ineffectual." The manager of its "Project Hostile Intent," Larry Willis, says, “We’re trying to establish whether there is something to detect.”

Ekman himself pretty much established that there isn’t when SPOTters under his guidance at Boston’s Logan International saved us from another 9/11: "The man in the cheap brown jacket stood slumped in line, staring at the ground. His hands were fidgety, reaching repeatedly into his inside jacket pocket, or patting it from the outside." Ekman sagely suggested that "repeated patting of the chest…might mean that a bomb is strapped too tightly under a person’s jacket," while terrorists often manifest "slumped posture." Sure enough, when Ekman and his acolytes accosted the man, he promptly confessed: "He was on the way to the funeral of his brother, who had died unexpectedly. That was the reason for the bowed head. The frequent chest-patting was to reassure himself that he had his boarding pass." Neither Ekman nor the TSA see anything wrong with a country in which government agents harass grieving people.

SPOTters have been spying on passengers since January 2006. As of September 2007, they’d fingered 43,000 of the approximately 1.3 billion people who had taken to the skies in that period. They called the cops on 3,100 of those 43,000 victims, with 278 people arrested for guns, drugs, fake ID, or immigration problems — not terrorism. SPOT’s rate of "success," if we’re judging that by number of arrests, is .0000002%. And that sinks even further, to 0%, if we’re picky enough to demand that the arrest be for terrorism. SPOT clearly fails at finding terrorists in favor of simply detaining folks. Fortunately for passengers, it isn’t even good at that: "It doesn’t seem like a lot of arrests, given how easy it is to arrest someone,” says Barry Steinhardt of the ACLU. Meanwhile, critics contend that "any random sweep of 43,000 passengers might have turned up as many criminals [sic]."

“There’s always a reason why you’re exhibiting that behavior that catches our attention,” opines one of the TSA’s SPOTters. “Maybe it’s just because you’re having problems at home.” Actually, it’s because we’re having problems with a totalitarian government.

Becky Akers [send her mail] writes primarily about the American Revolution.

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