Thursday, January 07, 2010

Obama and the TSA Rubes

The stupidest and clumsiest among us will be those we meet in our travels. My family has already seen effects of the drive for security from terrorists — particularly following the Christmas Day fiery-crotch episode.

Traveling from Boston to Montreal to London to Ottawa and home, we saw the literal-minded and dull-witted American TSA sorts feigning self-importance and effectiveness. In contrast, Canadian and UK security types did not check their brains at the door. Despite today's announcements by our President, I remain more confident in other screening systems than our heavy-handed methods.

The effects we are likely to see is what we experienced yesterday in Ottawa as we came under TSA control. We began the day at Heathrow with customs and security. The substantial differences between UK, Canadian and US versions do not lead us to think we are doing the right thinks at the traveler level.

Reading President Barack Obama's memo and hearing his remarks is another matter. He is demanding sensible and overdue procedures. Remarkably, this implies cooperation and coordination among the various fiefdoms and satrapies of our intelligence agencies. If the failed bombing forces the CIA, FBI and their ilk to analyze and share, that will be terrific.

However, back to the real world and to put it personally, the TSA sorts are about show and control, rather than their middle initial. Going to the American side at the Ottawa airport, we were immersed in the comical and frustrating world of petty bureaucrats. They only follow orders and rules are rules. These are just the people that grifters, terrorists and other sneaks can exploit. When you surrender thinking to scripted action, you're not much good.

Consider a few differences yesterday between UK and US security:
  • Footwear — Screening by both was relatively slow, with x-rayed bags and coats, inching cordoned lines, and security personnel eying each person. When it came to shoes, the Brits requested maybe one in a dozen passengers to take off boots and others likely to have metal in the soles. I had sturdy Rockport walking shoes and they said to leave them on. No one with sneakers had to remove them. All of us passed through the metal detectors un-alarmingly. The US version requires all passengers to take off all footwear. I doubt they ever find anything remarkable in separately x-raying shoes.
  • X-Rays — The Brits had vastly superior x-ray equipment. The finely detailed, colored images at Heathrow looked much clearer and I suspect would not fatigue the screeners as much as gray scale.
  • Carry-On Checks — Both UK and US security x-rayed all carry-on bags. Then, the US guys went through every bag of every traveler. This time-consuming and fruitless duplication of the x-ray does not inspire greater confidence.
  • Pat Downs — Every passenger then got a thorough pat down after passing through the metal detector. This too was time consuming, fruitless and intrusive. It may offer full employment for more workers but certainly neither found terrorists in the act nor dissuaded anyone intent on evil deeds.
Personally, I was moderately disappointed that my gigantic Expert Nail did not trigger questions and wanding. Following my leg surgery, I have a permanent 14.25-inch titanium rod in my left tibia, replete with six titanium screws. It would seem that such a massive chunk of metal would be detected.

Titanium is non-ferrous, so it apparently does not set off any metal detectors. I think it should. The bad guys surely could use materials with no iron to construct weapons.

I have obvious scars from my surgery and carried printouts of the rod in my tibia in x-rays. While not a passive, anything-authorities-demand sort, I would willingly have explained why I have so much internal metal.

That brings up the other part of the security fantasy. Those who favor the PATRIOT Act and are eager to surrender their liberties to the illusion of safety are steeped in logical fallacies. For phone taps, for example, they would say, "If you have nothing to hide, what do you object to?" Clearly confused about our freedoms and rights, they would strip us all of our fundamental and hard-won American ways.

At their worst, they fall back on the arguments of the unthinking. They would say, "It's only common sense," which is what people without facts and ideas to back up assertions fall back on. They might also demand that others disprove negatives like, "If the TSA didn't do all those things and a terrorist blew up a plane wouldn't that be proof that the safeguards were necessary?"

The answers to such stupidity are wasted on US security types. To a one, they seem to be provincials. They typify what so much of the world giggles at Americans. We are often lost in our self-importance and unthinking reactionary behaviors.

Granted 9/11 was a horrific shock. That changed us as a nation as well as the larger world. Yet how odd that some of our ways of acting out from that tragedy are strange and strained. I think of some flight attendants who act like Wild West deputy sheriffs. While that behavior can be explained if not excused, supervisors and even government agents should have long ago stopped such craziness.

Back to Obama, his pledge to work at the higher levels for our safety is good stuff. Perhaps he can also give some thought to the mundane. He doesn't have to experience the inanity and unthinking behavior of the TSA minions. Virtually any ordinary human could tell him and remind him how Americans used to be differentiated in no small part by our personal liberties.

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