photo: Bill Alldredge/Creative Commons


If you live in the United States and even sort of follow the news, or have just been to an airport in the past few weeks, you probably haven't been able to avoid all the brouhaha about the new options the Transportation Security Administration has given you before boarding your flight: Either get naked pictures taken of you or get publicly groped in rather intimate places.

On a personal level I don't much mind some underpaid glorified security guard seeing a naked photo of me—though I admit it certainly seems that the health jury's still out on whether or not I'm going to eventually get some sort of cancer from the new body scanners—nor frankly does getting an enhanced frisk seem that big of a deal. But that's just me, and I can totally understand if either option seems intrusive to the point of sexual molestation to you.

Incidentally, traveling this coming Sunday I'll get the new and unimproved TSA experience first hand, so I'll be able to put that initial reaction to the test.

The bigger thing in this that really bothers me, and I think it should bother you too otherwise I wouldn't be writing about this, is the thinking (or seeming lack thereof) behind this latest addition to the teetering pile of TSA security procedures—all of which seem more designed to give the impression of security, the reassurance that something (anything) is being done, rather than providing real safety.

Someone tries to blow up a plane with something hidden in his shoes: You've got to now take off your shoes (never mind that the BAA says regular scanners work just fine on shoes and it's needless redundancy). Someone tries to mix together some liquid explosive (never mind whether it would've actually worked): No more carry on toiletries except in absurdly small quantities and no more beverages except those ones purchased at airport markup prices for you. Take this out of its case, take off your jacket, take off your belt. Someone hides explosive in his underwear: We need to see you naked or grope you. Someone hides a weapon up his bum: Cavity search (just wait...).

It's all reactionary thinking, responding to the last threat rather than the one that's being thought up right now (which no doubt is occurring somewhere in the world as I write this). It's a piecemeal approach, seemingly never questioning whether a systemic overhaul is in order, rather than mere tinkering. Though admittedly, if opinion polls have anything in them, the majority of Americans are OK with it all—and that's significant in itself to both security and green issues.

I don't have a single answer to this problem—though if we can somehow get around the issues of racial profiling in the Israeli approach to airport security we may be on the right track—but beyond this issue the thing that really strikes me in the field I normally deal with, environmental thinking and policy, is that there's some serious overlap going on.

In both the TSA and mainstream environmental policy no one asks the basic question: What sort of world do we want to create and is it really possible to do that through continued modification of what we're doing now?

Take our approach to renewable energy for example:

All the talk is of when renewables will be cost effective with fossil fuels, or if we just took out the subsidies of fossil fuels or priced carbon the market would naturally favor non-polluting technology. That latter part may well be true, but it never addresses the crucial point. If we accept that burning fossil fuels is destroying our climate and producing them is polluting, why do we allow the production of them at all?

Part of that answer is theoretical, in that we have faith in quasi-free markets (and let's be clear, it is faith and perhaps entirely misplaced faith) and think that market-based approaches are inherently superior (also an act of faith perhaps misplaced). Part of it is both theoretical and practical in that you always want to modifying what you're already doing before admitting that there's a bigger problem and don't want to admit that a bigger change is required. And part of it is politico-practical: Polluting industries have a lot of money and spend it making sure that their continued existence is assured.

Which has another unintentional overlap with how we're now virtually strip searched:

As Al Jazeera reminds us, even though the Government Accountability Office has reported that full body scanners may not even be able to detect a future underwear bomber, manufacturer lobbying seems to have played a role in their adoption.

"After the attempted underwear bombing Michael Chertoff [the former Homeland Security Secretary] went on television pushing the fact that we need these scanners," Whitehead said. "He was a lobbyist for Rapiscan Systems [a company which produces the scanners]." The lobbyist's consulting firm, the Chertoff Group, promises "business development solutions for commercial and government clients on a broad array of homeland and national security issues".

The Whitehead in that passage is human rights activist John Whitehead, who also points out that "The full body scanners do not pick up what is inside body cavities. If you are a real terrorist, you are going to put [dangerous material] up your cavity. Israeli airports do not use scanners; they think [scanners are] a joke."

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