Monday, January 4, 2010

The Politics of Fear and the Debate over Whole-Body-Imaging

I want to continue with the discussion of airport security today, particularly the escalated clamor we're hearing all over the media, by politicians and representatives from the Fear-Industrial-Complex, to install Whole-Body-Imaging scanners in all airports - a device that photographs American air travelers as if stripped naked (and currently being utilized at some of our nation's airports).

Obviously with the recent attempted terrorist attack fresh in everyone's minds, the same interests that took advantage of 9/11 to ram through the Patriot Act are out in force once again - aided this time by a much more influential and powerful security-industrial-complex. While its true, that it is possible that such scanners may have identified the "underwear terrorist", the same could be said for other law enforcement techniques. There's also the fact that for every specific tactic we target with a new, expensive, and often burdensome security apparatus, the terrorist tactics themselves will also change.

I still would prefer more money spent on intelligence work and face to face questioning, and of course, to simply stop bombing and occupying Muslim nations, arming their enemies, and supporting their brutal authoritarian leaders.

But I don't want to rehash everything I just wrote last week, so for a more detailed introduction to this subject and various articles on it, check out past posts here, here, and here.

The paramount question in my mind still remains: Is the loss of freedom, privacy, and quality of life a worthwhile trade-off for unproven protections from a terrorist threat that has a 1 in 10 million chance of killing someone who's been flying 20 times a year for 10 years? As I mentioned last week, the chances I'm going to be hit by lightning this year are 500,000 to 1, a far more serious threat than any terrorist poses.

Here's a few other factoids to consider when determining whether we want to be digitally strip searched everytime we try and fly (aside from no liquid carry-ons, taking off our shoes, no nail cutters...where does it end?), as detailed by Brad Friedman: If you count the Ft. Hoot shooting as a terrorist attack (which it wasn’t, and isn’t even considered one by experts), 16 people have died in the United States as result of terrorism in 2009. The other three deaths include the Little Rock military recruiting office shooting (1), the Holocaust Museum shooting (1), and Dr. George Tiller’s assassination (1), the last two coming at the hands of right-wing extremists.

Now let's compare that to the 45,000 Americans that died because they didn’t have health insurance and 600 died from salmonella poisoning. So let's take a deep breath and start to consider what actually would reduce the threat of terrorism, and what won't, and what "precautions" will continue to burden the American public and decrease our quality of life as well as our right to privacy.

Bruce Schneier, author of Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World, said it best: If you set up the false dichotomy, of course people will choose security over privacy -- especially if you scare them first. But it's still a false dichotomy. There is no security without privacy. And liberty requires both security and privacy. The famous quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin reads: "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." It's also true that those who would give up privacy for security are likely to end up with neither. The risk can be reduced, but not eliminated, he says. "If we had perfect security in airports, terrorists would go bomb shopping malls," he says. "You'll never be secure by defending targets."

With that, let's get to the video clip of two congressman debating this subject on Fox (and the Republican is the one arguing AGAINST the electronic strip searches...imagine that!), then I'll get to today's Washington Post article on the debate.

Now the Washington Post:

Already shoeless, beltless and waterless, more beleaguered air passengers will be holding their legs apart, raising their arms and effectively baring it all as they pass through U.S. airport security checkpoints. Add the "full-body scan" to the list of indignities that some travelers are confronting in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, era of vigilance.

Federal authorities, working to close security gaps exposed by the thwarted Christmas Day terrorist attack on a Detroit-bound airliner, are multiplying the number of imaging machines at the nation's biggest airports. The devices scan passengers' bodies and produce X-ray-like images that can reveal objects concealed beneath clothes.


Seeing passengers beset by years of an ever-evolving airport drill -- at first handing over belts, cellphones and laptops for screening, then shoes, and later, dealing with restrictions on gels and liquids -- some activists and experts are asking how much compliance is too much in the name of homeland security.

"The price of liberty is too high," said Kate Hanni, who as founder of, an advocacy organization for air passengers, shuttles regularly between her California home and Washington to lobby Congress. Hanni said many of her group's 25,000 members are concerned that "the full-body scanners may not catch the criminals and will subject the rest of us to intrusive and virtual strip searches."


Critics say expanding the use of the machines is something of a knee-jerk reaction.
And, experts say, explosives can go undetected even in a full-body screening if potential terrorists conceal them in body cavities.

"It's definitely not a silver bullet," Carafano said. "There's a way to beat it. It's called a 'booty bomb,' where you actually insert the explosive inside the human being and then you detonate the explosive with a cellphone."

The TSA has tried to assuage privacy concerns by saying that the digital images produced by the machines would be deleted after passengers clear checkpoints. But critics are not reassured. "TSA has said, 'Trust us, we've put the switch to the "off" position,' " said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "But it's not difficult to imagine a scenario where they might decide to put the switch to the 'on' position."

Click here to read more.

There are many questions for us to consider as we continue on this path towards a full fledged surveillance society. What will happen to their images once they were scanned? Are they going to be recorded or do they just scan them and that's the end of them? Is this really the best way for us to spend our nation's limited resources? At what point have we given up too much of what makes us a free country just to supposedly prevent one new, specific tactic at a time? (1 in 10 million chance of even happening)

Glenn Greenwald sums up the irrational state of fear that increasingly grips our nation - in no small part due to the media - about as well as one can:

...demands that political leaders ensure that we can live in womb-like Absolute Safety are delusional and destructive. Yet this is what the citizenry screams out every time something threatening happens: please, take more of our privacy away; monitor more of our communications; ban more of us from flying; engage in rituals to create the illusion of Strength; imprison more people without charges; take more and more control and power so you can Keep Us Safe. This is what inevitably happens to a citizenry that is fed a steady diet of fear and terror for years. It regresses into pure childhood.


For a variety of reasons, nobody aids this process more than our establishment media, motivated by their own interests in ratcheting up fear and Terrorism melodrama as high as possible. The result is a citizenry far more terrorized by our own institutions than foreign Terrorists could ever dream of achieving on their own. For that reason, a risk that is completely dwarfed by numerous others -- the risk of death from Islamic Terrorism -- dominates our discourse, paralyzes us with fear, leads us to destroy our economic security and eradicate countless lives in more and more foreign wars, and causes us to beg and plead and demand that our political leaders invade more of our privacy, seize more of our freedom, and radically alter the system of government we were supposed to have. The one thing we don't do is ask whether we ourselves are doing anything to fuel this problem and whether we should stop doing it. As Adams said: fear "renders men in whose breasts it predominates so stupid and miserable."

More to come as this debate is sure to heat up in Congress.

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