Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The National Opt-Out Day, Media Coverage, and Next Steps

The extended holiday travel weekend is over and by all accounts the National Opt-Out day from airport body scanners had little to no impact. I can't say I'm all that surprised frankly.

One, we're talking about a small percentage of passengers (a couple % I believe) that are actually even confronted with the choice to be digitally strip searched or groped. In addition, the vast majority of airports aren't even equipped with the scanners yet. And finally, let's remember, when people are traveling on the holidays (or any time for that matter), its very difficult to get them to delay their trip...or be blamed for delaying others.

Taking into account those factors, the fact that the National Opt-Out day didn't have the impact some believed it might isn't all that surprising - nor is it a blow to the effort to rein in our increasingly intrusive, wasteful, and absurd security state.

Let me make one other important point on the whole topic of "what percentage of passengers chose to opt-out" front. Both the TSA and the media have been reporting grossly misleading data. Yes, they have reported the number of opt-outs at airports, but they've been contrasting that with the total number of those that flew.

What they fail to mention is how many passengers actually were forced to go through the scanners,
and how many of those opt-out. Also not reported is how many passengers flew over the holidays versus the past, and whether any decline might be due to people "opting out" of fling altogether. The truth, in other words, isn't always what it appears. Master statistician Nate Silver of the New York Times has the scoop on this peculiar "reporting".

The Media's Inadequate Job as Information Gatekeeper

I would like to say a few quick words about the media's role in all this. What became clear to me from studying and following stories from the mainstream corporate press on this topic is how little context they provided. For instance, one would think that the first issues to address when discussing whether an invasive and intrusive security measure is being debated is A. how serious is the threat against those being subjected to the measures, and B. how much safer do the measures actually make us, and C. how much does it cost and what could that money be spent on something more effective?

Of course, these critical issues weren't ever really discussed (at least not honestly or openly). I think the main reason for this is if they did it would call into question the entire rationale for the ever expanding and ever more wasteful, intrusive, and invasive national security state (from wiretapping to torture).

As I have written on this blog too many times to count, the chances of actually being killed in an airplane by a terrorist are nearly NON-EXISTENT ( See my recently published article on the California Progress Report that explains all of this in great detail). And two, these body scanners do not make us safer. In fact, many security experts argue they make us less so due to their exorbitant costs and the way in which they actually end up bunching up people as greater targets in the terminals themselves.

Instead, the media went to its "go to" method of storytelling: focus on the human interest component. So, sadly, what we heard was a variety of individual stories about their problems with the scanners and/or pat downs, or other individuals actual traumatic experiences with them (all of which is important of course). And then the media circled the wagons and went into its "framing" mode, at which time the story became the same in nearly every paper and on every television news segment (outside of Olbermann):

"Yes, some of the pat downs went too far, yes, for some the scanners are intrusive, BUT we live in a dangerous time that requires sacrifices, so we should all suck it up and do what's right for the country."

What a crock of shit! What about the actual threat from terrorism? What about the waste of money these machines represent? What about how ineffective they are? Or, what about looking into what actually CAUSES terrorism as a way to reduce its threat?

Addressing the Root Causes of Terrorism

One would think if we are to have an honest discussion about "how to make Americans safer", then we must first understand what causes terrorism? Of course, asking that question at all invites an answer that would threaten our security state's conventional wisdom. We know, for a fact, that the reasons there are in fact terrorists that mean to do us harm is American foreign policy.

So, if we are truly trying to reduce the threat of terrorism there are DEMONSTRABLY more effective ways than those currently being pursued. A few alternative tactics to consider: stop bombing and occupying Muslim nations, arming their enemies, torturing and indefinitely jailing their people, and supporting ruthless dictators in their countries.

While we're at it we should reinstate every gay Arabic translator (which we have a critical shortage of today) expelled from the military due to their sexual preference (in fact all gays that were expelled), and focus our attention on intelligence gathering rather than warmaking to catch the real extremists that want to do our country harm.

No one is denying that terrorism is a threat or seeking to justify their murderous crimes, but how does creating more of them make us safer? And instead of spending one more minute listening to the grumblings of a war criminal like Dick Cheney, let's heed the words of Martin Luther King Jr. instead: "We all have to be concerned about terrorism, but you will never end terrorism by terrorizing others."

Noam Chomsky had it right too when he said "Everybody's worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there's a really easy way: stop participating in it."

And if that's not enough, check out this list of airport security methods that WOULD make us safer, don't cost NEARLY as much, and don't include being groped or digitally strip searched.

Tom Engelhardt has a great piece on Trutout today on this very topic entitled The National Security State Cops a Feel. Here are a few key key passages:

We live, it seems, in a national security “homeland” of little angry bureaucrats who couldn’t be happier to define what “safety” means for you and big self-satisfied officials who can duck the application of those safety methods. Your government can now come up with any wacky solution to American “security” and you’ll pay the price. One guy brings a failed shoe bomb on an airplane, and you’re suddenly in your socks. Word has it that bombs can be mixed from liquids in airplane bathrooms, and there go your bottled drinks. A youthful idiot flies toward Detroit with an ill-constructed bomb in his underwear, and suddenly they’re taking naked scans of you or threatening to grope your junk.

Two bombs don’t go off in the cargo holds of two planes and all of a sudden sending things around the world threatens to become more problematic and expensive. Each time, the price of “safety” rises and some set of lucky corporations, along with the lobbyists and politicians that support them, get a windfall. In each case, the terror tactic (at least in the normal sense) failed; in each case, the already draconian standards for our security were ratcheted up, while yet more money was poured into new technology and human reinforcements, which may, in the end, cause more disruption than any successful terror attack.

Directly or indirectly, you pay for the screeners and scanners and a labyrinthine intelligence bureaucracy that officially wields an $80 billion budget, and all the lobbyists and shysters and pitchmen who accompany our burgeoning homeland-security complex. And by the way, no one’s the slightest bit nice about it either, which isn’t surprising since it’s a national security state we’re talking about, which means its mentality is punitive. It wants to lock you down, quietly and with full acquiescence if possible. Offer some trouble, though, or step out of line, and you'll be hit with a $10,000 fine or maybe put in cuffs. It’s all for your safety, and fortunately they have a set of the most inept terror plots in history to prove their point.


But here’s the thing: in our deluded state, Americans don’t tend to connect what we’re doing to others abroad and what we’re doing to ourselves at home. We refuse to see that the trillion or more dollars that continue to go into the Pentagon, the U.S. Intelligence Community, and the national security state yearly, as well as the stalemated or losing wars Washington insists on fighting in distant lands, have anything to do with the near collapse of the American economy, job-devastation at home, or any of the other disasters of our American age.

As a result, those porno-scanners and enhanced pat-downs are indignities without a cause -- except, of course, for those terrorists who keep launching their bizarre plots to take down our planes. And yet whatever inconvenience, embarrassment, or humiliation you suffer in an airport shouldn’t be thought of as something the terrorists have done to us. It’s what the American national security state that we’ve quietly accepted demands of its subjects, based on the idea that no degree of danger from a terrorist attack, however infinitesimal, is acceptable. (When it comes to genuine safety, anything close to that principle is absent from other aspects of American life where -- from eating to driving, to drinking, to working -- genuine danger exists and genuine damage is regularly done.)

We now live not just with all the usual fears that life has to offer, but in something like a United States of Fear.

So think of it as an irony that, when George W. Bush and his cronies decided to sally forth and smite the Greater Middle East, they exulted that they were finally “taking the gloves off.” And so they were: aggressive war, torture, abuse, secret imprisonment, souped-up surveillance, slaughter, drone wars, there was no end to it. When those gloves came off, other people suffered first. But wasn’t it predictable -- since unsuccessful wars have a nasty habit of coming home -- that, in the end, other things would come off, and sooner or later they would be on you: your hat, your shoes, your belt, your clothes, and of course, your job, your world?

And don’t for a second think that it’s going to end here. What happens when the first terrorist with a suppository bomb is found aboard one of our planes? After all, such weapons already exist. In the meantime, the imposition of more draconian safety and security methods is, of course, being considered for buses, trains, and boats. Can trucks, taxis, cars, and bikes be far behind? After all, once begun, there can, by definition, be no end to the search for perfect security.

Read the rest here.

So let's all take the media's coverage of this issue with a big grain of salt. Its not over by a long shot. These airport body scanners, and their myriad of problems, from potential health risks to images being stored and shared to exorbitant costs aren't going away; in fact, their numbers are expected to more than double in the coming months.

This issue is bigger than simply the human feeling of intrusion when submitting to the state. Its about what are we doing as a nation to cause ANYONE to want to commit terrorist acts? How do we address that threat at THAT ROOT level? What security tactics ACTUALLY make us safer? How do we protect privacy in this age of irrational fear? And what is the most effective use of our tax dollars at a time we face the worst economic recession since the great depression?

I again go to privacy and security expert Bruce Schneier who sums up this false dichotomy between privacy and security 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.”

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