So, I’ve been out of commission on the blog for a week and a half, and in the meantime people have been getting “complimentary gropings” at airports across America, aircraft engines have exploded and put the Airbus A380 program in jeopardy, stranded cruise ship passengers have been airlifted Spam and PopTarts, and people have mistaken aircraft contrails for missile launches. Clearly, a great week in human history.
But the most widespread travel discussions here in the US have been over the full-body screenings by TSA officials, and the opt-out option of a full-body groping, including breasts and genitalia.
Public polling of the American electorate still shows widespread support for the heightened screenings, but that support is in the abstract. Ask again in six months, when more passengers have flown and experienced it for themselves. Ask again when limiting the sample size to actual travelers. And ask yourself, why are we doing this in the first place?
Is the scan-or-grope policy leading to increased safety, or is it an instantly-obsolete defense that will easily and immediately be defeated?
I submit that, at this point, I actually think the TSA checkpoints themselves, and not the aircraft in the secure area, may be the riskiest spots in the airport. This isn’t a commentary on the radiation, the groping, or the searches and seizures, at least not directly. But don’t let it be a surprise to you if those TSA checkpoints are going to be the real targets soon.
I fear that checkpoints will be a viable target for both al Qaeda-esque “chaos villains” who want to disrupt the flow of normal travel life, and for anti-government McVeigh-esque self-styled patriots looking to make a statement against the perceived overreach of the government agency. Either depraved act would have a chilling effect on travel, and more importantly on an already fearful society.
As we harden the security perimeter, and as long as the motivations of terrorists persist, we increase the likelihood that an attack will be attempted in, say, the area prior to security, where crowds are dense and scanning hasn’t yet taken place. Or where cargo is stored (and barely checked). This is the fundamental weakness of the increased intrusiveness, spearheaded by expensive investments in equipment over intelligence. Technology and intrusive groping techniques won’t end up preventing attacks; they’ll just force the threat to move to another location, likely merely steps away.
It’s the Maginot Line of travel. After World War I, the French military built a series of fortified bunkers to protect themselves from the eventual next German invasion. The fortifications took a decade to build and cost a fortune. They were impressive, and indeed, the Germans didn’t attack the line head-on. Instead, they found a weakness and went around it, driving deep into France within five days. I see the constant escalation in airport security technology in the same way. Lots of fanfare, enormous spend, but easily circumvented by a dedicated attacker.
I don’t envy the TSA agents who do their jobs, as they face down the anger and frustration of a long stream of innocent people who are stripped of their dignity in order to be transported from point A to point B. Now it’s appropriate to worry about them becoming targets.