An Ounce of Prevention

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Recently by John Tyner: The Demise of the Rule of Law

     

I don’t like the TSA. I think what it does is an affront to liberty, to moral sensibilities, and certainly to the Constitution that supposedly defines U.S. federal power. That is not to say that I oppose transportation security; I just happen believe that the damage done by the TSA to the aforementioned list of things far outweighs whatever benefit it might be providing. As such, I would characterize it as useless. That much is probably obvious to anyone reading this, either because you’ve read my other writings or because you’re aware of my run-in with the TSA. What is probably unknown to most is that my encounter with the TSA has turned me off to reading about it and, even more so, to writing about it. Being a bit of a news junkie, I tend to remain “aware” of most major occurrences involving the TSA, but I don’t, as I imagine most people believe, go out of my way to keep up on every little detail concerning it. In fact, I tend to ignore most of the stories I see about the TSA because I get a very “resistance is futile” feeling whenever I do.

Part of the this feeling comes simply from the fact that no matter what the TSA does, no matter how badly it screws up, the (government) solution has been and will always be to throw more money at the problem. Why people accept this situation is completely incomprehensible to me. Just from a purely economic perspective, it’s preposterous. The TSA is a monopoly, and its parent, the federal government, openly and actively uses its monopoly position and power to not only prevent but prohibit competition. This is something that that same federal government makes illegal in the private sector. Moreover, the TSA continues to fail to carry out its own mission statement in which it claims that it “protects the Nation’s transportation systems …” The TSA has racked up a number of high profile failures on this front including the shoe bomber, the underwear bomber, the loaded gun that cleared screening, and the failures of its own internal tests. The TSA can’t even design tests for itself that it can pass (even after the 4th or 5th try depending on which story you read). If the TSA was a private company, it’s stock would be worthless, and it would be out of business.

But the continued influx of money, increase even, allows the TSA to continue to fail to uphold the second half of its mission statement as well: “… to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce”. The TSA’s website expands on this principle stating that it is composed of “people who conduct ourselves [sic] in an honest, trustworthy and ethical manner at all times”. This stands in sharp contrast with reality.

Freedom? I certainly wasn’t “free” to move about the country, no pun intended. My “freedom of movement” was conditioned on being groped by a thug in a government-issued costume (h/t William Grigg for that phrase; he likes to call them tax-feeders instead of thugs). It’s very fitting that the very first definition of freedom is “the state of being free or at liberty rather than in confinement or under physical restraint” because that is exactly the opposite of what the TSA offers. And what happened to me is, by no means, an isolated incident. The TSA recently went so far as to screen passengers (read: violate their freedom) after they had disembarked from an Amtrak train in Savannah. TSA’s “Blogger Bob” tried to explain this away as a Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) operation but then, at the end of the explanation, says that “this particular VIPR operation should have ended by the time these folks were coming through the station”. Not only does the TSA’s right hand not know what the left is doing, but its explanation that “disembarking passengers did not need to enter the station” and therefore willfully submitted themselves to the search is at odds with a first-hand account stating that “[T]here were about 14 agents pulling people inside the building and coralling [sic] everyone in a roped area”.

Honest and trustworthy? Ethical? Finding stories about the TSA stealing from passengers is not a difficult task. A quick search turned up this blog post on the TSA’s website in which the TSA talks about the theft for which it is responsible. That post is from early 2008. In late 2008, TSA screener Pythias Brown was arrested after “appropriating” over $200,000 from airline passengers. Long aware of its problems, the TSA has yet to do anything about them. Theft is still a problem for the TSA, but it’s not just at the lowest levels as even managers have been found to be accepting “kickbacks” in return for “looking the other way”. The TSA has also become very adept at lying to the traveling public as one commenter at the TSA’s blog points out. In November of last year, the TSA said that those under 12 years of age would receive a modified pat-down when extra screening was required. Today, the TSA said that the pat down it gave to a 6 year old, in which the agent used the front of her hands for the majority of the pat down and even put her hands inside the child’s waistband and shirt collar, is standard operating procedure just like for those over 12. And, of course, there’s still the “debate” about exactly how much radiation you get from the TSA’s AIT machines and whether or not they can store pictures.

Yet, the TSA remains in business, which brings me to the other reason that I don’t typically follow stories about the TSA. Initially, the response to my encounter was very positive (for/to me and the cause of liberty). But as my story reached more and more people, I was subjected to very visceral reactions to what had happened. Many called me an attention-whole, claiming that the whole thing was set up. Some suggested that instead of blaming the government for trying to feel me up, I should blame the terrorists who made the whole thing necessary. But the majority, in various colorful ways, simply said that it was this way or the highway. That is, get felt up or get blown up, and this is the reason that I don’t like hearing about the TSA. People are so afraid that they accept the TSA as a given. It makes me angry to read stories or responses along these lines knowing that no amount of rational discussion can be had about what the TSA does (or doesn’t do) because the thinking behind those stories and responses is based on fear. No rational or logical discussion can be had with someone who is arguing from a place of fear.

It’s a funny thing, emotion. In spite of seemingly infinite documentation of TSA abuses and screw-ups; in spite of the evidence that one is more likely to die in a car on the way to the airport than on the plane or that the odds of getting a fatal cancer from one of the TSA’s AIT machines is roughly equivalent to a terrorist attack on a plane, we continue to allow the TSA to go on about its business in the name of “prevention”. In fact, I would argue that more liberties are lost (or given up) in the name of prevention of some “terrible” event than any other cause. Guns are taken away and demonized to prevent crime. Gay marriage is outlawed lest it lead to the decay of society. Drugs are prohibited on the grounds that people might overdose and hurt themselves. Gambling is made illegal because people might overindulge and lose their money. Parents aren’t allowed to pack their children’s lunches because they may not be healthy “enough”. Privacy and due process are lost in the name of preventing terrorism. The list goes on and on.

What happens when the prevention, the supposed “cure”, becomes worse than the disease, though? Statistics show that guns save more lives than they take. Drug policy actually leads to poor quality drugs and criminal violence. Our government carries out due process free assassinations, and when we find out about it we only dare to question the secrecy of the operation not the legitimacy of the killing. Most damning of all, though, is the article that I found at the end of a link embedded in the story about the 6 year old girl that was patted down this week. TIME asked a child psychologist to explain how to make TSA pat-downs less traumatic for children. What is wrong with us when we’re so afraid of our own shadows that we’re willing to let government goons touch our children? Have we really come (read: regressed) so far? We’re willing to accept the (false) choice: see our children naked or touch them all over. I really hate to play the “think of the children” card here as it is an appeal to emotion and not rationality, but I think it is in order. We’ve regressed so far that we’re even once again willing to accept the “following orders” defense. Says a TSO:

I come to work to do my job. It is not up to me to decide policy, it is up to me to carry out my duties as dictated by the Transportation Security Administration. People fail to understand that neither of us are happy about the intrusive pat down I am carrying out. I am polite, I am professional [...] And we eat it up. There was no end to the number of people who told me that I was a jerk during my encounter and that the TSO was very professional. I can only assume that the logic, if there is any, behind such an argument is that we should willingly give up our liberty if the government simply asks nicely enough.

And liberty is exactly what this should all be about. Our federal government was instituted to protect our liberty, to “prevent” infringements of it. But “infringe” is exactly what it does. Each of those preventions I mentioned is, in reality, an infringement of liberty. For example, gun ownership is not an aggressive act against another. Gay couples don’t infringe anyone’s liberty by loving each other, nor does a drug user in his use of drugs. Each of these acts does not, in and of itself, constitute an infringement of liberty, but our government restricts, if not outlaws, each of them which clearly is an infringement. And so 1984 is upon us as the government has taught us all to master the art of doublethink. We simultaneously believe that government protects our liberty while at the same time believing that “prevention” is a valid form of that protection, and if we allow it to continue then something is wrong with us, indeed.

Reprinted with permission from Johnnyedge.

John Tyner [send him mail] is a software engineer in Southern California. He occasionally writes about economics, politics, and constitutional issues.

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