Last Christmas, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate plastic explosives on Northwest Airlines Flight 253, but was subdued thanks to the quick action of his fellow passengers. A shock to the American people — particularly given the otherwise peaceful holiday — the attempt has sparked an attention to airline security not seen since 9/11.
The cynical reaction has been to say that the government agencies designed to protect fliers failed to do their job — they are incompetent. The aggressive reaction of those agencies has been to implement invasive new screening techniques — they are necessary to protect us.
But both of these reactions are wrong. The lesson of last year’s Christmas bomber is that protecting the common good requires the cooperation of both government authorities and private citizens.
And it is this partnership that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has jeopardized — along with our collective safety — with its virtual strip searches and intrusive frisking. Yes, not only are TSA’s new measures abusing the collective civil rights of the flying public, they are making us less safe.
Fliers who feel embarrassed and incensed are going to be more distracted than they would otherwise, and less attentive to the suspicious behavior or unattended baggage we’re warned about. Beyond that, the kind of people who are most likely to stand up to an aggressive government screener are the same kind of people most likely to jump at a terrorist. A Connecticut man arrested last week because he had the guts to punch a TSA screener (who may or may not have deserved it) is the kind of guy who will spring into action if something happens on a plane, but not if he’s stuck in airport jail.
Fliers who feel violated by a government employee are less likely to cooperate with that government. The first victim of these new procedures is TSA’s credibility, which it has lost by violating small children, breast cancer survivors, pilots, nuns, and countless others for whom law enforcement has no probable cause to search. And after promising that images from the full-body scans would be instantly deleted, the images instantly started appearing online.
Furthermore, TSA officials will have to divert the agency’s already thinly spread resources to defend against lawsuits when those resources should be used to defend against terrorists. The (quite justified) backlash against the TSA is no doubt also demoralizing to its employees, who already have an extremely difficult job to begin with. (Imagine the popularity the typical TSA screener will enjoy at holiday dinners this year.)
These hostile procedures have created an adversarial relationship between the American flying public and its protectors, when what we both need is a collaborative one.
With the election past and no other big news right now, cable channels are dedicating huge blocks of time to TSA’s every infraction of public trust. A new Republican majority in Congress, elected on the platform of reining in government, will be delighted to flex its muscles to stop TSA’s intrusions. The Obama administration — populated overwhelmingly by staff who would have roiled against these techniques under their predecessors — will be eager to deprive those Republicans of this wedge issue before the 2012 campaign. Senate Democrats can do so by acting on legislation by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) to block nude body scanning that has already sailed through the House (310-118).
And the Pentagon has revealed that bomb-sniffing dogs are more effective than any manmade device. (Dogs, however, don’t have as many lobbyists as do the makers of expensive scanning equipment.)
TSA will, eventually, stop performing naked body scans and pat-downs. But every day between now and then, its officials are doing damage to their agency, their credibility, their employees, and the civil rights of millions of Americans.
And with that, TSA is threatening our national security.
Jared Whitley is a communications veteran of the White House and the US Senate.