Invasive Searches and Underage Drinking

Kevin Drum posted an anti-rant about the TSA, which argues that the new scanners and pat-downs aren't an outrage because they really mean well:

I'm not trying to defend everything TSA has put in place. Some of the stuff they do, like the penknife and nail clipper bans, really is stupid. And maybe backscatter scanners don't work. I'm certainly open to the idea. But honestly, most of what they do is pretty easy to understand: they're trying to make it so hard to get weapons and explosives on board airplanes that no one bothers trying -- and the few who do can't pack a big enough punch to do any damage. For the most part, it seems to be working. The price we pay for this is plenty of annoyance, but again: do you really want to get rid of the annoyance and bet your life that terrorists will never figure out how to make a better shoe/underwear/liquid bomb? I'm not so sure I do.

Josh Rosenau rightly reponds by pointing out that Al Qaeda is not a cartoon supervillain, and of course the go-to guy for commentary about security issues is always Bruce Schneier. Schneier rightly notes that it's kind of silly to be strip-searching passengers when we're not effectively searching their luggage, which is probably the strongest practical argument that this really is "security theater"-- that is, that the TSA's policies are more about being seen to be Doing Something about airport security rather than doing what really needs to be done to make planes safe.

I wanted to mention another, slightly more subtle, angle on this that I haven't seen elsewhere, which is the overall corrosive effect that silly and inconvenient policies have on people's attitude to authority. In this sense, the TSA approach is a lot like drinking age laws.

By that I mean that the long-standing approach of banning alcohol consumption below a certain arbitrary age ends up making a smallish dent in the actual consumption of alcohol by minors-- it's really not that hard to get alcohol if you really want it-- at the cost of a big decrease in respect for the law in general, and an increase in seriously unsafe behavior (clandestine drinking in dorm rooms, etc.). I'm an academic, so my main encounter with the issue is in an academic context, and I think that rigid and hard to enforce drinking age rules does a lot to poison the relationship between students and college and university officials. Whenever the administration announces a new policy or initiative, a large fraction of the student body immediately starts looking for the nefarious anti-alcohol agenda that they assume must be behind everything.

Now, the TSA procedures aren't anywhere near as easy to circumvent as the alcohol laws, but I think there's something of the same effect. Pointless and dehumanizing screening procedures manage a marginal increase in safety-- as both Rosenau and Schneier have said many times, the best defense against a passenger taking down a plane from within is the vigilance of the other passengers on the plane-- at the cost of a significant increase in cynicism about the whole process. And that means that, down the road, when the TSA finally gets its act together to do real screening of luggage, the reaction from the flying public won't be "Oh, thank goodness they've finally closed that loophole," but "Now what stupid thing are they doing to make my travel experience more miserable?"

If you want a more airplane-specific analogy, think about the ban on electronic devices during take-off and landing. On every flight, they make an announcement sternly warning you that you can't listen to your iPod until some arbitrary altitude has been reached, despite the fact that there is no significant increase in risk from a passenger having music playing during the start and end of the flight. I know this, because I always blow off that announcement, and listen to my music through the forbidden stretches of the flight.

The net effect of that policy is not to make the plane any safer, but to make me and many other passengers more cynical about airline policies in general. It lowers my opinion of the flight attendants who enforce the stupid and pointless rules, and makes me less inclined to believe anything else they say.

I'm not a wild-eyed libertarian radical in favor of privatizing the roads and that sort of thing-- government is essential, and there are times when laws are needed to make people safer. As a general matter, though, I think that we should avoid laws and policies that piss people off more than they help. The TSA rules on passenger screening are pretty solidly in this category, which is why I think they're a bad idea.

(For the record, I also think that the health concerns about the scanners are silly-- the worst case I've heard from anyone serious is still far less radiation than you'll get during the flight-- and that the proposal to actively bog down security screening on one of the busiest travel days of the year is asinine.)

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More than an inconvenience or developing a bad attitude to authority - searching americans is a constitutional issue and the flap is whether it is reasonable. Thanks for pointing out just how unreasonable it is in actual practice. One could also mention Somalis coming across the border - a rather odd sort of way to get here. Let us see how many want to cross the border if they will get an underwear search and go thru a scanner.

By joel rice (not verified) on 23 Nov 2010 #permalink

On the "no electronic devices" rule, one (arguably?) valid rationale is that it's to avoid distractions when the plane is low and slow enough that passenger alertness might actually matter if Bad Things Happen. Overblown reaction maybe, but it's not complete garbage.

The dimming of cabin lights for take-off and landing is so that if the aforementioned Bad Things Happen and the lights go out, everyone's eyes are already somewhat dark-adapted.

By Lurker #753 (not verified) on 23 Nov 2010 #permalink

The bit about listening to music during takeoff and landing. I never thought that was because it might increase the risk of something bad happening, but simply that those times are when the probability is highest that something can go very wrong very quickly. They want you to be able to hear cabin crew instructions in the event something unpleasant happens. I've been on flights where you were permitted to listen to music, but only that supplied from the in-flight entertainment system, which has an automatic override for announcements, and only if you did not wear noise-canceling headphones during that part of the flight.

I don't buy the "You can't listen to music because you might not hear our instructions" line, because it's not like they go around making sure everyone is awake and alert. If you're sound asleep without obvious headphones, they let you sleep (provided your seat and tray table are upright, anyway). I've been awakened by the plane touching down on several occasions.

I think that line is a retcon, after people stopped believing that using your iPod could somehow crash the plane.

Underage drinking laws can also be poisonous for town-gown relationships. Some colleges (including the place where I work) have policies that allow, or even require, the eviction of any student caught hosting a party in his dorm room where underage drinking takes place. The students so evicted thereby end up--you guessed it--in the population of students renting off campus housing, and arguably these are the students who make the worst neighbors. Off-campus drinking parties are a major problem in this town, leading the Town Council to feel that they have to Do Something in the form of a disruptive house ordinance which nobody seems to like.

As for TSA stuff: I read Patrick Smith's aviation columns at Salon (Smith is a pilot with Delta Airlines). He agrees that much of the security screening is nonsense, mainly because there is a large group of people who are given access to passenger aircraft without going through screening. This would be the ground staff: baggage handlers, caterers, mechanics, etc. Mechanics, in particular, need tools which passengers like you or I cannot transport in hand baggage (screwdrivers, wrenches, etc.). There have been many instances of ground staff being involved in theft or contraband running schemes (in many countries, though not the US, you can have your checked baggage wrapped in plastic in order to prevent ground staff from trying to smuggle drugs in your baggage--this is particularly important in Southeast Asia, where several countries, most notoriously Singapore, have a mandatory death penalty for drug smuggling).

As for the no-iPod-below-FL100 rule, there actually is a good reason for that. If anything goes wrong during takeoff or landing (which is when things are most likely to go wrong; luckily that is rare), your survival may depend on situational awareness, which is strongly diminished if you have your iPod volume turned up. The no-electronics rule probably is out of date; at one time the fears of interfering with navigational systems were legit, but probably not so much anymore (these days, many planes are equipped with WiFi, which used to be forbidden).

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 23 Nov 2010 #permalink

I wonder if the rule against IPods during take-off and landing is not the electronics but the ear-buds. Maybe they are concerned that you are able to hear instructions from the flight crew just before or after the crash.

Eric- I'd argue that if I'm fast asleep (which I often am, and which they don't seem to mind) I'm worse than having my headphones on.

I leave mine on in general unless specifically asked to by a flight attendant (surprisingly rare). One time I had a seatmate insist on it, which really pissed me off for a few minutes until I realized she probably had a very strong flying anxiety which my "rulebreaking" was exacerbating.

Another point against the "It's about distractions/ attention" argument is that they also make you turn off silent electronic devices like e-book readers, that do not in any way impair your ability to hear instructions. And before you say that getting caught up in a book is a distraction itself, they will happily let you continue reading paper books or magazines.

I don't think there is a reason for the ban on electronic devices any more, other than that they've had this rule for so many years. On the occasions when I've asked about it, I've gotten a series of stupid and conflicting answers. My favorite was the flight attendant who insisted I turn off my iPod while at the gate, because electronic devices weren't approved until after takeoff. When I pointed out that people all around us were talking on cell phones, she said "Oh, but cell phone use is permitted until we close the doors."

I agree on the whole electronic device angle, but my concern regards the thinking that "the best defense against a passenger taking down a plane from within is the vigilance of the other passengers on the plane". What? Really?

This is a hugely fallacious argument that I can't stand. We have a sample size of what, three incidents, maybe four. One in which everyone on the flight was killed.

It also looks only at those attempts that actually got to a point where something happened in the air. Sure the best way to stop a threat on the plane is by passengers on the plane. That's like saying the best way to fight the flu, once you get it, is a specific medicine. Why not try to prevent getting the flu in the first place?

I agree with the "theater of the TSA" idea and that it's not necessarily making us safer. (If I were an individual with no family to think of, I would have deep frozen some water bottles and brought them through security (no liquids right?) to show what a sham the rules are.)

But the argument that our best line of defense is passengers and not something more preventative is bunk.

It hasn't been that long since I wasn't allowed to listen to my discman during take off but I could have listened to a walkman. Any logic there? (Why am I looking for logic in safty rules?)

By marciepooh (not verified) on 23 Nov 2010 #permalink

As to the electronics, according to the FAA it's both attention and what I'll call liability. There is still debate as to whether the electronics can interfere with cockpit control equipment (see (sorry no clickable link - I'm html dumb) or I believe there is old Mythbusters about this).

The problem may be simple ignorance on the part of everyone. These rules and their reasonings should be made clear by the TSA and FAA in documents present at every airport, in pamphlets available in different languages. The flight attendants should be aware of the reason in case they are asked.

I've always been troubled by the lack of information given at security by the TSA. Shoes on or off? (It used to be a question of where you were.) Are "hoodies" allowed or not? (This one changes every time for me.) Can I bring knitting needles/screwdriver/wrenches on the plane? (The answer to all is yes, with size limitations.)

Every security checkpoint should have a bank of pamphlets outside giving everyone detailed instructions and rules. Assume that everyone going through the checkpoint is flying for the first time ever. I've seen agents yell at people who have never flown because they kept their ID with them when going through the metal detector, and I've seen them yell because someone put it away.

Often it's not clear what to do and the appropriate people (TSA officers) don't know. That's a huge problem as much as anything else.

It automatically made my link clickable!?! Technology is awesome.

If the prohibition of iPods is because the passenger may not be able to hear cabin announcements then why aren't earplugs banned also?

The ban on using electronics is also absurd: why would I need to smuggle a gun or a bomb on board when my laptop might do the job just as well.

As Chad points out these absurdities just lessen overall respect for those in charge. With *no measurable* increase in safety.

By NoAstronomer (not verified) on 23 Nov 2010 #permalink

I forget where I saw this, but the best way right now to cause flying chaos is to get high-capacity rifles or handguns and start shooting all the people bolluxed up in those huge lines trying to get through security. (I was tempted not to even mention this, but it is so obvious that any terrorist ought to be able to think of it.)

The trouble with "theater" is that there is always another stage.

Something I have not seen addressed, maybe because everyone is so annoyed at these people, is the effect of these scanners on the TSA personnel that operate them. They are standing right next to an X-ray device with no protective clothing whatever, doing thousands of scans a week. I am completely lacking in the kind of technical background that would make me understand what back scatter radiation is, but here is a device that is in no way enclosed, and a person standing right next to it for hours a day, five days a week. The letter from the UC researchers also worries me:

I was tempted not to even mention this, but it is so obvious that any terrorist ought to be able to think of it.

You are not the first to have posited the security line as a target. It should be self-evident that a security checkpoint cannot defend against anything that happens outside the secure zone--the point of a security checkpoint is to make sure that it doesn't happen *inside* the secure zone. Which is why (and I'm not the first to say this) the best defense against any kind of terrorist attack on air travel is to catch the perps before they get to the airport, as actually happened in the case which triggered the ban on liquids.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 23 Nov 2010 #permalink

There is no reason to search some passengers if other people are exempt from having themselves and their luggage searched. Searching some while exempting others only makes the point that the government can abuse some people but not all people. We knew that in 1776.

Want to blow an airliner out of the sky? Put an altitude-sensing bomb in the luggage of a member of Congress who is making a point of flying commercial.

By Nattering Nabo… (not verified) on 24 Nov 2010 #permalink