Dim Bulbs Seek Bright Lines: The LA Times vs. American Travelers

“There’s no bright line to indicate where our quest for security becomes intolerably invasive of our privacy,” write the editors of the Los Angeles Times (“Shut up and be scanned,” Nov. 17), “but we’re still pretty sure the TSA hasn’t yet crossed it.”

I could probably turn that sentence into a pretty good riff on the need for a remedial session of Composition 101 in the Times‘s editorial offices, but I’ll stick to “bright lines” instead. Here’s one:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated …

Ring any bells? It’s from the Fourth Amendment to the “supreme law of the land”: The US Constitution.

As an anarchist, I naturally find even that unsatisfactory. It assumes too much (the need for and existence of even an activity-restricted state). Here’s another “bright line” worth taking a look at: The line that use of the word “our” crosses.

Who’s this “we,” and what tortured logic puts TSA (or, for that matter, the Times editorial board) in the driver’s seat for all of us?

Is it just possible that among the thousands of US airports — around 15,000 of them including hundreds of “primary airports,” i.e. airports with scheduled service and more than 10,000 annual passenger boardings — there’s room for experimentation in best security practices?

Given that we still enjoy the services of multiple airlines — fewer than we once did, largely due to the tender ministrations of state intervention in the industry, but still several major carriers and many smaller ones — and that these airlines tend to work through separately assigned gates at the airports they serve, is there any particular reason why we shouldn’t also enjoy competition among those airlines in balancing security with customer satisfaction?

Devolving security to the airport or airline level would accomplish several worthwhile goals.

First, it would make the US air travel system a harder target from the get-go. Uniform security practices mean uniform holes in those security practices. If every airport and every airline does everything the same way, whatever gets missed at LAX will also get missed at JFK and O’Hare. Or, to put a finer 9/11-related point on it, what gets missed at Logan will also get missed at Newark Liberty International.

Secondly, it would improve the overall security of that system over time. The current system imposes “one size fits all,” and as 9/11 demonstrated, that leads to catastrophic, rather than isolated, failures. In a decentralized system, more ideas would be tested. Successful approaches (“we detected and stopped a bombing attempt this way”) would propagate through the system quickly. Failed approaches (“the hijackers made it through our screening procedure”) would disappear just as quickly.

Finally, it would allow America’s millions of travelers to decide for themselves how much privacy they’re willing to trade for how much security.

The passenger who’s willing to submit to a cavity search (and pay the higher ticket price that a stricter security regime requires) to feel “completely safe” can fly on Airline A.

Her less math-challenged counterpart (even before TSA, airline travel was statistically one of the safest activities an American could engage in) can fly on Airline B, which has reverted to the old metal detector/bag X-Ray way of doing things.

And their wild-eyed cousin, who believes that a diffuse threat requires a diffuse defense, can fly on Airline C, which requires only that its armed passengers limit themselves to frangible bullets in the .38, .45 and 9mm pistols they carry, openly or concealed, when boarding.

The important thing to remember is that the weak point in American air travel safety is government.

In the near term the state’s screwed-up air security schemes have driven airlines to the edge of bankruptcy (and sometimes over that edge) and, at last, passengers to the point of full-blown rebellion.

In the long term, it’s the state that makes us targets for terrorists in the first place.

Al Qaeda didn’t hijack those planes because Osama bin Laden got an undercooked hamburger at a fast food joint, or because some big box chain store sold him a defective lawn chair.

They hijacked those planes by way of attempting to blackmail powerful politicians into doing things they don’t want to do by scaring their constituents into demanding it. Take the power away from the politicians and the tactic goes away with it.

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