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Irrational Fear & the TSA’s “Security Theater”

21 November 2010 | Category: Headlines
TSA agents at Fort Lauderdale

TSA agents at Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Photo © 2008 steuben. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License.

The Transportation Security Administration has triggered a media frenzy over its highly-publicized new screening requirements for U.S. airline passengers. Despite the controversy in the press, however, a recent CBS poll shows that fully 81% of Americans support the new scans. This is a remarkable example of how irrational fear — one might call it "terror" — has succeeded at making Americans into obedient subjects for an increasingly totalitarian government.

Yes, I said irrational fear. Considered logically, the idea that Americans must give up the right to the privacy of their own bodies in the name of public safety is ludicrous. The role of security ought to be to defend individual dignity, not take it away. If we are willing to surrender access to our own bodies, then what's left to keep secure? Lives? That sounds noble, but compare the statistics:

  • Homicide victims in the US, 2009: 15,241.1
  • Alcohol-related traffic fatalities in the US, 2009: 10,839.2
  • Total air passenger deaths in the US, 1990 to 2009: 1,632.3
  • Total air passenger deaths in the US resulting from terrorism, 1990 to 2009: 265.4

The irrefutable fact is that Americans are surrendering their rights for a security procedure that doesn't even address the biggest risks of flying — and flying is already safer than nearly anything you could do on the ground. The new screenings are essentially just security theater — procedures that create a feeling of safety while offering little protection against real-world threats.

The new security procedures in the US, for example, would not have stopped any of the aviation terrorist plots that have been attempted since September 11, 2001. The notorious "shoe-bomber" and "underwear-bomber," both of whom failed to do any harm, each boarded their flights outside the United States. The most recent foiled attack, involving explosive-filled HP printers sent from Yemen, featured bombs sent as cargo, not carried by passengers. In each incident, the attacks were prevented by good intelligence gathering or swift action aboard the planes — never by the mass screening of either cargo or passengers.

Likewise, while the September 11th hijackers succeeded in their terrible attack nine years ago, they did so in an era when cockpit doors were insecure and airline passengers were allowed to carry box-cutters aboard flights. Security officials fixed those weaknesses long ago, and no one is suggesting a return to pre-9/11 screening standards. The problem is that the TSA has not been content to rest with past improvements, and it has now begun to violate the privacy of millions of Americans for an imperceptible increase in public safety.

Still, you may hold that every increase in security is justified, no matter how small, if it can save even a single innocent life. No one would dispute that we should prevent every death we can — but at what cost?

Should the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration require every American to submit to a full-body search and sobriety check before entering a motor vehicle? That would prevent more deaths than the current airport screenings.

What about preventing crimes other than terrorism? Should the FBI try to eliminate murder by subjecting everyone who possesses a firearm, or a knife, or a letter opener, or a matchbox, or a string — or hands — to constant surveillance? It is all for the noble cause of public safety, after all, and whether a person is likely to really be a murderer is as irrelevant as whether they are likely to blow up an airplane. Everyone must be perpetually searched and tracked, or we will all be insecure.

America's founding fathers knew that arguments like this were deeply flawed. That's why Benjamin Franklin famously wrote that "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." More importantly, our founders gave us the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution, which reads as follows:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

As I've pointed out before, the Fourth Amendment protects only against unreasonable searches and seizures — a diminishing standard in an era when millions of people find it reasonable to publicize their lives in intimate detail on Facebook. It's no wonder, in that context, that 81% of Americans think the new screening procedures are okay. With their lives already on display online, Americans have decided they have nothing to hide and no more need for secrets. Driven by terror, they cheer the arrival of the police state. It seems they have forgotten what the police must still remind every person put under arrest in this country: "anything you say can and will be used against you."

Privacy is not some esoteric right needed only by people with a dark past or a jaded motive. It is a crucial protection of the individual against authoritarianism — a fundamental component of human dignity. Criminal suspects still have the right to remain silent in the United States, but airline passengers have forfeit the right of privacy in their own bodies. What are we securing ourselves against, if not the deprivation of our liberty? We must either guard and demand respect for our rights, fellow Americans, or we will lose them.


  1. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Crime in the United States, 2009: Murder.
  2. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Traffic Safety Facts: Highlights of 2009 Motor Vehicle crashes. August 2010.
  3. National Transportation Safety Board. Aviation Accident Statistics: Table 5. Accidents, Fatalities, and Rates, 1990 through 2009, for U.S. Air Carriers Operating Under 14 CFR 121, Scheduled and Nonscheduled Service (Airlines).
  4. National Transportation Safety Board. Aviation Accident Statistics: Table 12. Air Carrier Occurrences Involving Illegal Acts (Sabotage, Suicide, or Terrorism), 1990 through 2009.
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