TSA at Link's Opening Day – Photo by Lloyd

I’ve watched the TSA Body Scanner/Pat Down fiasco with the usual mix of outrage and dark humor.  In our collective apoplexy we have made the TSA into caricatured goons to be contrasted with grandmothers and toddlers undeserving of security scrutiny. While my own politics agrees with these sentiments, I think a couple angles on this story have been missed, one of which relates to transit and the other to ethics.

First, in this new paradigm cars win. If you care about privacy and freedom of movement, it’s a good time to drive a car. While air, rail, and ferries will likely face ever-tightening security in the coming years, private vehicles will remain largely free of restriction or inspection, despite the massive precedent of car bombings.  Traveling on any major public conveyance will submit you to inconvenience, forced data collection, and surveillance.  Not so for cars.

Second, we are partly to blame. Our expectations of government reveal a fundamental contradiction. We tend to judge as utilitarians and argue as deontologists. Put differently, we tend to argue the merits of a policy via principles (ethics, rights, justice) until something bad happens, at which point our moral calculus swiftly switches to results-based judgment.  If there is a successful terrorist attack by whatever means, we fallaciously blame the government post hoc for failing to foresee and prevent the means of attack.  This tendency also works well in reverse; when there is an extended period without an attack we reward politicians without any evidence that their actions provided any meaningful deterrence.  How many times have you heard, “Bush may have been a bad President, but his actions kept us safe”?   As a result – despite our protestations – as a society we reward governmental hyperactivity and will not tolerate inaction.   This establishes overwhelming incentives for our government to enact ridiculously cautious and intrusive security policies.

If we want to win a social argument against the “surveillance society” on the basis of rights and justice, we must relax the utilitarian standards to which we hold our governments.  As difficult as it is for our litigious society, we must accept risk, period.  We must recognize that beyond a certain point risk-avoidance diminishes the quality of that which it seeks to protect, namely a free and mobile life.  Attacks will happen, and I may die, but I would rather face that infinitesimal particular risk than assent to a general loss of liberty.  The best formulation I have seen comes from Swedish philosopher Sven Ove Hansson in his article Ethical Criteria of Risk Acceptance,

“Exposure of a person to risk is acceptable if and only if this exposure is part of an equitable social system of risk-taking that works to her advantage.”

If only President Obama had meant what he said on Inauguration Day,

“We reject as false the choice between our liberty and our ideals…those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience sake.”

32 Replies to “Ethics, Risk, and Junk-Touching”

  1. The irony is that if the actions of the TSA make transit less attractive, and people switch to driving, more people will be killed in automobile accidents than will have been saved from terrorist attack.

    The TSA has caught hundreds of people for drugs, and no terrorists. It is clear that the TSA and DHS in general have had mission creep and seem to believe they are on the lookout for child pornography, money laundering, and drugs, and not just terrorists, and that they believe constitutional protections don’t apply when you encounter the TSA.

  2. Well, to drive a car, you need a license. Driving is a privilege, not a right. And if the TSA takes over every means of travelling in the United States, then the right of free movement is dead. We will be the new Soviet Union.

      1. Actually it was listed in the Articles of Confederation, but by the time it came to draft the Constitution, the framers considered it to be so obvious, they did not deem it worthy to bother with.

        You also might want to read up on UNITED STATES v. GUEST, 383 U.S. 745 (1966):


        The constitutional right to travel from one State to another, and necessarily to use the highways and other instrumentalities of interstate commerce in doing so, occupies a position fundamental to the concept of our Federal Union. It is a right that has been firmly established and repeatedly recognized. In Crandall v. Nevada, 6 Wall. 35, invalidating [383 U.S. 745, 758] a Nevada tax on every person leaving the State by common carrier, the Court took as its guide the statement of Chief Justice Taney in the Passenger Cases, 7 How. 283, 492:

        “For all the great purposes for which the Federal government was formed, we are one people, with one common country. We are all citizens of the United States; and, as members of the same community, must have the right to pass and repass through every part of it without interruption, as freely as in our own States.”

  3. Bravo, Zach. Benjamin Franklin made this essential point 220 years ago. He also said “We have given you a Republic, if you can keep it”. Because of this obsession with “security” it is fast slipping away.

    1. Another of the Founders (Jefferson? Franklin again?) said something like “Anyone who would give up a little libertry for a little security will deserve neither and lose both.”

  4. That isn’t a “Security Guard”, which in many states have to be trained and certified. He (I think it a “he”) is actually a “clerk”, some refer to them as “Smurfs”.

    I chose to view them like I view the Jüdischer Ordnungsdienst and I really do wonder if these individuals are prepared for the day they will have to explain their actions to their children and grandkids. “Just following orders” has not been a valid defense since the Nürnberg Trials.

    Oh, and P.S.,
    His presence is also an attempt by the Feds to bust the Seattle P.D.’s and King County Sheriff’s unions; enjoy those salaries and “pensions” while you can sworn law enforcement officers because this guy is doing your job for $9/hour.

      1. I’m baffled how TSA can claim that it represents a robust security apparatus when its qualifications for hiring are so abysmally low.

  5. I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, the TSA is (a) ineffective and (b) overkill, but on the other hand, a real threat exists. Statistically speaking, the threat represents a lower risk to the individual than many other activities in which we engage daily (driving a car). Hell, planes are still more likely to kill you because of mechanical fault or pilot error than because someone blows it up. Emotionally speaking, however, people fear 9/11-like events much more than car crashes. Also, it seems to be a problem that is solvable – keep people from bringing bombs or weapons on commercial aircraft. Thus the populace expecting the government to “do something” about air safety.

    Everyone points to Israel as an example of a country which has been dealing effectively with such a high threat level for some time, but they are a country of 7.6 million people versus 310 million in the US. Their air travel infrastructure is much more centralized and consolidated than ours. It is useful to look at how they deal with the threat, but the scale of the problem in the US necessitates some differences in approaching the solution (and I don’t claim to know the solution).

    So what do we do about it? Focus less on technology and brute force methods? Let the airlines be responsible for security, letting people choose the level of invasiveness they are willing to subject themselves to by choosing different airlines? Scale back the monster that is the TSA, using fewer but better-trained and better-paid guards to do the job?

    I have a feeling the pendulum will begin to swing the other way (maybe it is already). The further away from 9/11 we get, the more risk people will be willing to take and the less inconvenience and intrusion they’ll be willing to accept.

    1. I’ve been subjected to Israeli security on multiple occasions in the past 2 decades and basically, there is only one international airport for the entire country and its traffic in 2009 was pegged at 10.9 million passengers compared to Sea-Tac which counted 31.2 million passengers.

      But it is interesting that they use a variety of profile and psychological techniques to assess passenger risk and they operate from any airport in the world where EL AL flies.

      For example, in the early 1990’s I was flying from Heathrow to TLV on El AL and was told to be at the airport 4 hours prior to departure. I was subjected to a series of interviews and was asked about the nature and purpose of my visit, where I would be traveling, what I was carrying what hotels I would be staying in. They requested to see any correspondence related to my invitation to visit the country.

      Then they asked about my familiarity with the geography of the country and (laughing at the recollection) got into a bit of an argument with one chap about the name of a town which I knew of as Akka but is also known locally as Acre or as I found out Acco. Later, some dude comes back to me and claims that I had changed my story which I denied. The exchange got heated and I later figured out they were intentionally trying to get a rise out of me. I had baggage that had been checked through and several passengers were required to go down to the tarmac and identify it and some of it was subjected to search.

      Other than the magnetometer on re-entering Heathrow (I had a 17 hour layover so I went and toured London) I was not subjected to any further personal physical inspection but the rigorous questioning Israeli security was as invasive. The departure from Israel was equally as invasive but again, I was not physically searched. I would not be surprised if a dossier on my travels there exists on some government computer.

      Oh and if you travel on a bus or rail you will likely see literally squads of young Israeli soldiers WITH their weapons (and their cell phones – they are young after all) traveling around the country.

      So, do you think the United States could erect such a thorough security screening regime that is less physically invasive but certainly thorough given that instead of 1 airport we have dozens and dozens of international airports with flights to/from hundreds of destinations? Are we willing to accept the level of military visibility that is an every day fact of life in Israel? (Posse Comitatus act not withstanding) Are we willing to accept the occasional terrorist attack that occurs in and around Israel also as a fact of life despite the heavy security?

      It is reasonable to conclude that we have nothing but theater here for our security and that if we were truly interested in actually protecting our citizens, it would require changes in our culture that we may not wish to make.

  6. TSA and its parent, the Department of Bureaucratic Terrorism, apparently have an unlimited budget and license to harass the public. It is indeed theater the way that intrusive personal inspections are carried out, to no avail. In spite of their apparently unlimited budget, TSA used stimulus funds to buy the body scanners. Please advise how many people are employed thusly, and to what economic and public benefit.

    I agree with comments above that the risk of terrorism on public transportation is minuscule, and the chance of death and the environmental and economic cost are far greater with private transportation. There are better ways to provide security on public transportation.

  7. With freedom comes responsibility.

    Cars require more responsibility, higher costs, but offer independence.

    When we cede transportation — the conveyance of our persons to the Mass Man we cede our freedom…we subject ourselves to bureaucracies, fees, taxes, restrictions on travel, the inability to go directly to where we want.

    Independently guided Personal Transit Systems are the 21st century.

    1. I have a friend with a PPL and he walks onto the tarmac with no security, jumps into his plane and flies away. Very much like driving a private automobile. I wonder where our ideas of security work there?

      1. Since they have not made any changes since that terrorist flew his private plane into the IRS building in Texas, we can assume that it is only security theater for the masses that our esteemed leaders are concerned with.

      2. Such nonsense – I’ve flown over Seattle in private planes on numerous occasions since the crimes of September 2001 w/o a peep from DHS/TSA.

        [Ot]

    2. By this line of argument aren’t drivers “Mass Men” for driving on public roads? Roads are also subject to bureaucracies, fees, taxes, and restrictions.

    3. No question a private automobile can provide a very large amount of personal freedom. When owning a car first came in range of the average person, not a few public fretters worried out loud about the new threat to young people’s morals, namely the back seat. By some accounts, it was when coal miners could finally own cars that the Company Town- with its soul-owning Company Store- lost its grip.

      But exactly like hiking in the mountains, when hundreds of thousands of people want to travel to the same place along the same route, freedom itself requires some organization. The same way buildings with halls and stairways come to need elevators.

      My wife and I love to drive cross-country by the two-lane roads, just as we love to travel by train. (Flying had already become hateful long before 9-11. It’s too bad passenger-carrying freighters have gotten so rare.) But when we have to drive into a distant city, we generally try to find accomodations close to transit- where we park the car for the duration of the visit.

      No matter what the goal, every tool has its use- including the goal of personal freedom, which I think everybody involved in public transit shares with you, John.

    4. If “Independently guided Personal Transit Systems are the 21st century” is the case, why are so many cities investing so heavily in Mass Fixed-Route Shared Transit?

      1. “Because! Because the Mass Man is powerful and is engaging in a last-ditch effort to take away our freedom before we can take it back from him! DON’T TOUCH THE HAT!”

  8. I’d like to point out that I deliberately didn’t focus on the actual effectiveness of TSA policies. For the sake of my argument I chose to view TSA policies in the most charitable light that I could – perfectly effective, with a verifiable causal link to terrorism prevention – and STILL claim that they are not worth it.

    Of course most of us would claim that the new policies are grossly ineffective theatre, which only strengthens the argument against their use. Still, I wanted this post to argue against the Security State on purely ethical grounds, and to push back against the subtle expectations we place on our government whether we mean to or not.

    If I were having this discussion over a couple of beers, my argument would be much less restrained. =)

  9. This is what “the Public Trust” is about- and why any Government shrugs it off at great peril. Neither major US political party has a clean record on this score, and I think all three branches of Government presently bear serious attention. But by the general way it conducted itself in office, the George W. Bush Administration went out of its way to make it clear that it was not only willing to use the public’s legitimate concern for its safety to enrich chosen private contractors, but also did not give a damn who knew it.

    In 1992, I had two interviews with Israeli airport security, the more intensive one on my departure. They were extremely curious why I had so many detailed pictures of city buses in Tel Aviv (I was using my vacation from Metro Transit to visit the DAN Cooperative, which runs transit in Tel Aviv.) They were even more interested in why I had a detailed street map of Budapest. (It seemed like a perfect souvenir from a bookstore on Allenby Street that personified the ethnic makeup of the city, and was more appealing than the Hungarian language pornography also on display.)

    Being much younger, I also had ideas about volunteering to work for DAN if Israel got into the Gulf War on the ground- both of which ideas my buddies at the Cooperative considered completely idiotic. I wouldn’t doubt Shin Bet is still trying to figure out the map. They gave me back my camera undisturbed, but gave me back my alarm clock in pieces to keep me busy reassembling ’til my jet was clear of Israeli territory.

    The experience seemed like a good taste of real as opposed to stage-effect security- though if this is how somebody friendly enough to come into Israel in wartime to do war work, I’ve got no doubt what would have happened to somebody else. Like an innocent Palestinian.

    Three years ago, I was also body-scanned twice at Schipol. Somehow I didn’t mind it as much as if US officers had been looking at the pictures. Europeans seem to have less pervertedly Puritanical imaginations. All those paintings and statues, I guess. Does anybody else remember the recent story from Florida, where one TSA trainee shot another one for laughing at the dimensions of his personal parts onscreen?

    I’m also reading that not only do the Dutch machines show decidedly less embarrassing pictures, but they’re also more accurate in detecting danger. I don’t necessarily think US machines were designed for extra humiliation. But I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the main “spec” was that a specific firm get the contract.

    I seriously hope somebody can prove me wrong on every negative allegation above. I’ve got family in distant places, and will probably need to fly overseas for my work.

    Mark Dublin

  10. I don’t necessarily think that cars win, although one could argue that cars have already won long before the TSA was created. Cars won’t win more, because if I want or need to fly to New York, driving there or even taking the train is not much of an option unless I have 5-6 days each way for travel time. People need to get places far away and want to do so quickly, so airplanes will remain the vehicle of choice in most cases. Maybe airplanes will lose out to short haul traffic where people can take a train, bus, or car to Portland or Spokane without having to go through airport type security.

    1. Just one minor correction – the train takes three days from Seattle to New York. Miami is four days.

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