National Opt-Out Day


As it turns out, I'm flying home on National Opt-Out Day--the day before Thanksgiving, when people are being urged to refuse a backscatter scan, and instead request an invasive pat-down in a private space.  Perversely, perhaps, I'm rooting for the Opt-Outers--though I've no doubt that many of their fellow passengers will be annoyed.

It seems to me that the TSA ratchets up the security the way a government in a police state would.  Perhaps there are some public deliberations that I'm missing, but from the perspective of a passenger, there's no attempt to achieve balance.  There's simply a progressive ratcheting of our liberty ever downward.  Did Richard Reid try to put explosives in his shoes?  Then we must have our shoes scanned--even infant shoes too small to blow anything up.  Did someone else attempt to set his underwear on fire?  Well, if you can't strip them down to their skivvies for a check, do the next best thing:  find a machine that does it virtually.

Somehow, this seems like a questionable reaction to two attacks that failed.  Especially since they failed for the same reason that any similar attack is likely to fail:  the amount of explosives you can smuggle in your underwear or shoes is necessarily small, meaning that you need to be in the cabin to detonate them if you want to be sure that you'll bring the plane down.  And it's really hard to set your underwear, or your shoes, on fire without your fellow passengers noticing.  In Asia, I've never been required to have my shoes scanned--not even to get on a US bound flight.  And yet, we have not been confronted with a rash of exploding planes out of Taipei or Saigon.

The TSA seems to have assumed that the ratchet could keep moving downward indefinitely (notice that they never seem to find ways to make searches less invasive and annoying.)  I think that the backscatter/invasive search deployment may finally have gone too far--although I freely admit that this may be wishful thinking.

But whether they ultimately rescind this decision in the face of backlash or not, I think they're near the breaking point.  In part, because they're starting to get to the point where people are looking for alternatives to flying (environmentalists are permitted on restrained cheer, but please keep it somber in acknowledgement of the fact that civil liberties matter too.)  We're taking an eight hour train to Boston, where we can work in peace, rather than subject ourselves to the indignities and discomfort of air travel.  And I'm not the only one I know who is saying this.  The distance at which one will substitute trains, driving, or staying home for flying is stretching out even faster than the TSA's overreach.

But what about security, I hear you cry.  I am not opposed to reasonable measures which keep us safer.  But bombarding everyone with x-rays in order to get a quasi-naked picture of them is not reasonable.  Nor do I see how it is making us safer--all the lovely illustrations show guns just popping out on the x-ray, which is lovely, but they also make the metal detector scream like an electric cat being vivisected.

Maybe there's some compelling security advantage I don't know about, but most of the security experts I read have been pretty silent about what these benefits might be.  Meanwhile, we're putting more effort into screening airplane passengers (and pilots!!!) than cargo.  Is that because it makes us safer?  Or because it's easier, and more visible?  I would be more sanguine about all this nonsense if it didn't seem like we're the proverbial drunk searching for the keys under the streetlight not because that's where they were dropped, but because the light's better.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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