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TSA Intrusion Is One Price of Empire

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How gratifying to see Americans increasingly angry at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) for using offensive full-body scans and frisks in its latest production of what security expert Bruce Schneier calls “security theater.”

The government would have us believe these measures are safe and effective, but its record for veracity is, to put it mildly, disgraceful. Meanwhile Schneier, an independent voice who makes it his business to check this stuff out, doesn’t believe the scanners would have caught even the would-be underwear bomber: “The guys who make the machines have said, ‘We wouldn’t have caught that.’” Maybe a full frisk indistinguishable from a sexual assault would have found the potential explosive, but that wouldn’t have caught the guy in Saudi Arabia who tried to hide one in a body cavity. Is the TSA going to introduce cavity searches next?

Let’s remember that the TSA has been incompetent from the beginning. No one can name a single plot it thwarted, but over the years we have seen many stories of TSA inspectors failing tests announced in advance. We can be sure that countless forbidden items carried by innocents have passed through security. One person unknowingly carried a full 9mm pistol magazine through security in a carryon bag. While some TSA agents are missing contraband they are supposed to be looking for, others have pilfered things from people’s checked luggage. Flying is anything but secure; the main problem, however, is not terrorism.

So let’s hope the anti-TSA anger builds, but let’s also be aware of the risks. I’m referring to the risk from right-wingers, such as Ann Coulter and Charles Krauthammer. The conservative critics of body scans and frisks have not hidden their agenda. They’ve made clear their hope that joining the civil libertarians might get them what they have long wanted: ethnic, national, and religious profiling of airline passengers. Why frisk a grandma from Minnesota or a child from Vermont, they say, when “we know” whom to target?

Here’s how Coulter put it: “Is there any question that we’d be looking for Swedes if the 9/11 terrorists, the shoe bomber, the diaper bomber and the printer cartridge bomber had all been Swedish?…. Only because the terrorists are Muslims do we pretend not to notice who keeps trying to blow up our planes…. Swarthy foreigners stand out like a sore thumb in an airport. The American domestic flying population is remarkably homogeneous. An airport is not a Sears department store.”

And Krauthammer: “[The] entire apparatus of the security line is a national homage to political correctness…. The only reason we continue to do this is that people are too cowed to even question the absurd taboo against profiling — when the profile of the airline attacker is narrow, concrete, uniquely definable and universally known. So instead of seeking out terrorists, we seek out tubes of gel in stroller pouches.”

I concede there is surface logic here. The profile of those who wish us harm is fairly narrow, although profiling would undoubtedly prompt a revision in tactics. But in a way, the profile is even more narrow than Coulter and Krauthammer would care to admit. At the top of the list of likely attackers are people with ties to countries the U.S. military and CIA are currently brutalizing with drone-launched Hellfire missiles, cluster bombs, and assassination teams. All the would-be bombers fit that profile, and when they have spoken in court they have said they wanted revenge for America’s war on their people. Even the Nigerian-born underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, spent time in Yemen, where the U.S. government conducts a bombing campaign. (By the way, Abdulmutallab, a black man, doesn’t look like an Arab. Would the profilers have netted him? The authorities were alerted by his father, and he still got through.)

If the truest profile marker is a link to a Muslim country that the U.S. empire is occupying or bombing, that indicates there’s a better way than profiling to secure American lives: Dismantle the empire. It’s worth a try.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.