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Security and the TSA

There has been a lot of press lately over the TSA’s use of body scanners and very personal pat-downs lately. There has been some pushback against the TSA, but opinion polls generally suggest that about 80 percent of Americans support the new “security” practices, relying on the old “anything to make me safe” argument, or the “if you have nothing to hide” argument. I’ll spare you all that hoary Ben Franklin aphorism, but I will say that I have never felt so close to all my liberal friends as I do when I hear that nothing-to-hide argument!

For those that have forgotten it, or have never read it, here is the text of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.


Let’s now focus on the parts that involve the TSA and the Border Patrol. “The right of the people to be secure in their persons…against unreasonable searches…shall not be violated.” There are a couple of key points in this amendment’s language that need to be clarified, so that we can all agree on the problem.

First, the amendment says the “right of the people.” This phrase does two things. It describes who and what the amendment applies to. It applies to the “people,” meaning you and me; and pretty much everyone who falls under the protection of the Constitution. Secondly, it identifies a right. It neither creates nor grants that right, it merely identifies it. The right belongs to the people, and cannot be defeased.

Second, the amendment talks about being secure in our person against unreasonable searches. We all know, almost intuitively, what that means. It means that the government cannot search our person, our body, unreasonably. But what does “unreasonable” mean? That is the question that we really need to answer. So, I did a little research.

According to Reason Magazine, your risk of dying in a plausible terrorist attack is much lower than your risk of dying in a car accident, by walking across the street, by drowning, in a fire, by falling, or by being murdered. The odds of being struck by an asteroid are about one in 200,000; if terrorists hijacked and crashed one of America’s 18,000 commercial flights per week, your chance of being on the crashed plane would be one in 135,000; hardly more likely than an asteroid strike.

So, given those numbers, I find the “please make me safe” argument rather unpersuasive. If people were really worried about safety, they wouldn’t drive, walk, use fire, or go to the bathroom. For the same reason, the “nothing to hide” argument falls flat. Even if we let people through without screening, the fatal terrorist rate would hardly change. So people are worried about the wrong things at the wrong times.

Every day, we drive our cars, and every day we kill people with them. And by we, I mean society in general. And yet, nobody would suggest, much less tolerate, indiscriminate stopping and searching of anybody’s car without reasonable cause. Yet when it comes to airports, we ignore our rationality, and submit to what are ineffective searches, that are on the face of them, mathematically unreasonable. Almost every public terrorist event involving passenger aircraft, has occurred after security checkpoints. The shoe bomber and the underwear bomber passed through screening and were only thwarted by passengers and flight attendants.

The TSA performs security theater. Groping grandma or grandpa isn’t making us safer, it only makes the unthinking people “feel” safer. The TSA, like the Army, always fights the last war. We had to take our shoes off after a shoe-bomber, and now, they need to electronically strip us because of the underwear bomber. But the reality is that the shoe and underwear bombers teach us that threats advance and change, and the answer is not to abuse our rights, but to proactively prevent the next attack, which will be neither shoes nor underwear.

The point is, the TSA searches and body scanner policies are blatantly unreasonable. They are unreasonable because they don’t prevent anything, and because they are, at least statistically, irrelevant. The only thing they do, at least to my mind, is to remind us of what Aldous Huxley said, “Continued crisis breeds continued control.” I thank God that our Constitution is not dependent on the whims of the population, I just wish it was less dependent on the whims of the Supreme Court.

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