'The Americans Make Us Do This': Lessons in TSA Liberty from the ChiComs

Two more views about "security," from opposite sides of the world. First, a reader who travels frequently between China and the United States compares the airport-security experience in the two countries, in response to this post:

>> As a former Minnesota local prosecutor... thanks for continuing to point out the absurdities and outright idiocy of security theater in the US. How anybody who knows anything about genuine public safety could agree that what's happening in the US has much to do with genuine public safety is beyond me. But I'm also not writing about that.

As a 12+ year resident of Shenzhen... I did want to confirm your experience with security in this place where dissidents are locked up: I've only had to take off my shoes once when passing through airport security and have never once had to open up (or turn on) my computer or any other electronic device.

My favorite experience, though, was this: I tend to glower at the folks doing the bag searches before getting on the plane. I guess the agents sense the glowering because twice now, I've the Chinese security agents apologize to me for having to do this... one apologized and then whispered to me "Sorry. The Americans make us do this. It's useless, I'm embarrassed." On the other occasion, the agent verbally apologized and gave a quick head bow as he rezipped my bag.

On the flight where the first Chinese agent apologized to me, when we arrived in the US and deplaned, we were met by two US agents and a German shepherd which sniffed us all as we passed by. One of the agents must have been 250 pounds and towered over the deplaning passengers, most of whom were Asian. The agents had their batons out, guns visible, and tasers.

What a contrast - an apology from Chinese security agents at the start of the trip and intimidation upon arriving in the US. Welcome to the land of the free and home of the brave. That the governing classes who so piously mouth platitudes about American exceptionalism are silent in the face of these atrocities to the liberties of innocents says more about America's decline than any of the numerous economic comparisons.<<

Now, from a US government official based on Washington DC, who like many of us here spends a lot of time in the Metro:

>>What I love is that you can still walk onto the Washington metro, known target of AQ terrorists, without so much as a cavity search or having your son's genitals touched by a government agent.<<

To make the point for the zillionth time -- and, yes, I'd rather say this too often than not say it often enough -- it is insane, destructive, and Maginot Line-like in thinking for the U.S. to pour out so many resources, intrude so deeply on liberties, and generate so much domestic and international ill-will in dealing with one area of potential threat, out of all proportion to what it does elsewhere. And, yes, I say this in awareness that the original 9/11 attacks were against airliners and that many terrorist groups seem to have a "terrorism theater" obsession with aviation. Even so, "security" measures that do not pass a common-sense logic test ultimately generate contempt for the entities carrying them out, and for their grasp of the challenge they are undertaking and the security/liberty balance that is involved.

As seems to be happening now, with suddenly-flaring public concern about the "enhanced" security rules. The Reuters poll below is not at all "scientific," but it is interesting. More than 69,000 people have voted; 96% object to the new rules. Yes, off course, any online poll can be manipulated and could be completely misleading, but the proportions are pretty similar to those of comments on the TSA's blog. Click for larger image of poll results; original is here.

Politicians may still be afraid of touching this issue, but from the public the clear sense is, Enough is enough.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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