TSA and America’s Zero Risk Culture


The lede on the DRUDGEREPORT most of Monday showed a Catholic nun being patted down at an airport security checkpoint, with the caption starkly declaring that "THE TERRORISTS HAVE WON."

He’s right.

Ten years after 9/11, Americans who fly are facing a Faustian choice between subjecting themselves to a virtual (and potentially medically damaging) strip search conducted in questionable machines run by federal employees or a psychologically damaging pat-down of their bodies. Osama bin Ladin must be giggling himself silly this week.

But what should we expect in a society that requires adults to wear bicycle helmets while pedaling in the park, provides disclaimers of liability on TV advertisements, or prints warnings on fast-food coffee cups? The name of the game is zero risk. Not risk mitigation, or accepting responsibility for one’s actions, but risk aversion. It’s a failure to acknowledge that we can’t protect against everything bad that can happen to us, so we must protect against everything we think might — might — be harmful at some point.

It’s living in fear.

TSA has established itself as the lead federal agency charged with perpetuating this risk-averse culture at airports around the country. The proof is evident over the past ten years: Because of the Shoebomber, we have to remove our shoes. Thanks to the Christmas Crotchbomber, we are subjected to invasive scanning or government-mandated molestation. Because there’s a potential for explosives in liquid or gel form, we’ve got the "Three Ounces in A Baggie" rule. Wearing a sweater or bulky fleece hoodie? Take it off (along with your shoes and belt) so it can be examined. Or frisking Granny, or asking toddlers to drink from their Sippy-cups to make sure it’s really Mommy’s milk inside. And let’s not forget the thankfully defunct prohibitions on knitting needles, insulin syringes, matches, lighters, or standing during the last 30 minutes of flights to Washington, DC.

All in the name of protecting the homeland.

Given this latest round of homeland hysteria, I must ask again — what happens after the next ‘new’ attempt to smuggle something onto a plane? Actually, we know the answer: another item will go on the Prohibited Items List and additional screenings of passengers will be conducted, followed by more patronising security-speak from our Department of Homeland Insecurity asking law abiding folks to give up more of their privacy and personal "space" in the interest of Homeland (er, "State") Security. Big Brother, meet Big Sister. With all her homeland security lobbyists along for the ride.

Where does it end?

Due to this nationalised risk aversion and a docile public, we’re now living in a country that subordinates law abiding travelers to quasi-law-enforcement employees of a government agency empowered to make up the rules as it goes along and arrest/fine those who question, challenge, or refuse to comply with their demands while impeding their travel within this great country. What does all of this do to our nation? Our way of life? Our way of thinking as citizens?

Perhaps this is intentional, and we’re being conditioned to accept the actions of TSA and embrace a zero-risk mentality on our society. What else can explain the statement made earlier today by TSA Director John Pistole that citizens who protest what they see as government transgressions into their privacy are being "irresponsible"? Calling us irresponsible when protesting this latest round of TSA actions is no different than our being labelled unpatriotic when protesting or questioning some of the provisions in the controversial USA PATRIOT Act. Same stuff, different Administration.

The American public needs to recognise the nature of the terror threat and accept a certain level of risk in their lives and travels instead of kowtowing to every reactive security ‘enhancement’ proclaimed by TSA as necessary to protect the country. In terms of airport security, we are the laughing stock of the industrialised world, and an embarrassment to knowledgeable security professionals.

The tragedy of 9/11 wasn’t the attacks of that day, but what has happened to America in the years since.

Which begs the question: who should we be afraid of, really — "them" or "us?"

RICHARD FORNO is a security researcher in the Washington, DC area.


November 26, 2015
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