Body-Searching Children: No for the US Army, Yes for the TSA

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Please read the note below. A US Army staff sergeant, now serving in Afghanistan, writes about the new enhanced pat-down procedure from the TSA. Summary of his very powerful message: to avoid giving gross offense to the Afghan public, and to prevent the appearance of an uncontrolled security state, the US military forbids use on Afghan civilians of the very practices the TSA is now making routine for civilian travelers at US airports. Here is what he says:

>>In reading your post and the most recent one from Mr. Goldberg about the War on Terror and pedophilia, I am disturbed. What bothers me is that I am on the verge of re-deploying from Afghanistan after a 10-month combat tour that involved having to deal with, among other things, conducting searches of local nationals when involved with security tasks within my Infantry company. At no time were we permitted or even encouraged to search children or women. In fact, this would have been considered an extreme violation of acceptable cultural practice and given the way word travels here, been a propaganda victory for the Taliban.

Yet somehow the TSA is engaged in this at home while my unit and I spent our tour unable to safeguard ourselves equally in an environment where the Taliban have often disguised themselves in burkas and used children as both spies and fighters. While I have no conflict with the necessity to safeguard civilians against terrorism or with the risks we all voluntarily assumed as Soldiers, it seems as if the bureaucracy has become so obsessed with safety that we have forgotten that war entails risks beyond those of physical combat. If we are truly at war, then we need to decide what civil liberties we truly view as negotiable and which are inviolate- otherwise the greater risk than underwear bombers at home will be losing the values that make us unique as a nation.

These people terrify us as much as we allow them to. Apparently FDR's idea about "the only thing to fear" is lost on TSA and the current administration.<<

Everything about security involves a balance. "Perfect" security would mean complete controls on freedom, elimination of privacy, etc. Someone who is now exposed to real, daily danger in Afghanistan because of decisions about the proper balance argues that we need to be braver society-wide. Yes, soldiers accept different risks from those that are tolerable for society at large. But this is profound and powerful testimony.

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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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