Thursday, November 18, 2010

Presumed Guilty

I want to be safe and secure. We all do. It’s one of the most fundamental characteristics that we share. When we travel we particularly want to protect ourselves. AAA predicts that more than 42 million of us will travel 50 miles or more next week for the Thanksgiving holiday...close to 20% of all Americans. Nearly all will arrive and depart safely whether going to Grandmother’s house by air, rail or car. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has established new rules where air passengers will be randomly selected to undergo a full-body electronic scan that shows the screener a naked image to determine if the individual has any contraband or explosives on their body. Individuals who are uncomfortable with the scan can elect a full body search which now includes same-sex screeners exploring the genital area.

Last week a passenger declined both, feeling that it was far too invasive and opted not to travel by plane at all. A TSA official threatened to fine and jail the passenger regardless of the fact that the man was leaving the airport.


The Los Angeles Times ran an editorial yesterday “Shut Up and be Scanned”. In today’s paper a letter writer suggested that the passenger who opted not to travel should be put on the no fly list. These are our choices?


On September 11, 2001 19 al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four commercial jets and perpetrated the worst attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The responses to this horrific day have been extensive and the change to how we fly has been one of the most dramatic and obvious.

In response to a series of hijackings carry-on bags had to be screened starting in late 1972. That launched the incremental increases in procedures that have resulted in full-body scans/searches. Planes used as a weapon is a terrifying prospect and I certainly am not interested in traveling in a system which could be easily corrupted by the bad guys.

Flight 93 crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania on September 11. The passengers stormed the cockpit and sacrificed themselves so that their flight would not continue on its path to crash into the White House or the Capital building in Washington. Those passengers were, in fact, the first to operate in the Post-9/11 world --- they took control and didn’t allow the terrorist plot to succeed.

There have been dozens of other incidents where passengers have taken it upon themselves to stop behavior or threatening actions. We no longer live in a world where hundreds of fellow passengers will quietly sit by as an aircraft is commandeered as a missile. Cockpits are more secure and pilots can carry weapons. Air marshals fly on most commercial flights.

Just a few weeks ago we learned Yemen-to-US flights carried bombs.  It reminds us that cargo transported (via air, rail or sea) is largely not screened and thus subject to nefarious activity. There are simply a huge number of ways that a free and open society can be manipulated, scared and intimidated.

Terror, by definition, is when we are afraid, uncertain and not safe. The question is whether the actions we take to feel secure actually make us secure or just give us the appearance of being secure.

There are cities where every two to three blocks a police car is visible. In London nearly every place one goes is captured on camera – they have more than 500,000 of them! (80% of crimes caught on their CCTV still go unsolved, however.) After 9/11 the National Guard patrolled airports with machine guns. At the height of the crime spree in my own neighborhood the local constabulary put on a visibility campaign...including parking empty patrol cars every few blocks. All of these actions make me feel less safe and less secure. Walking my neighborhood today I don’t see a major police presence and I actually feel safer as there isn’t a need for them to be out front.

Somebody has filed suit against the TSA for violating the Fourth Amendment with their new screening procedures. The extraordinary American system of checks and balances will once again be tested. I’m sure the case will wind its way through the courts over many years and by the time there is a resolution it won’t much matter since another technology will be in place.

One of the things I cherish about America is that we’re all Presumed Innocent until Proven Guilty. This presumption makes it difficult for law enforcement. It is one of the bedrock principles of the freedom that we fight wars to protect.

Some say “If you don’t have anything to hide, then it shouldn’t matter.” That’s a powerful and flawed argument. The premise of the argument changes that bedrock principle from having to prove one’s innocence instead of having it proven. When I fly next week I won’t have anything to hide. If chosen I will have to prove that I don’t have anything to hide (literally) it since the TSA presumes I’m guilty simply for wanting to spend Thanksgiving with family. It certainly won’t make me feel any safer.

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