'Dear Sen. Klobuchar: Let's Rethink the TSA'

Two reasons for posting the letter below, which is addressed to Sen. Amy Klobuchar, of Minnesota, and which I'm using with permission of the author, James Ehrler of Stanchfield, MN.

One is to kick off a new (to this site) format feature, the use of Scribd to embed long documents. Details of Scribd another time, for people not already familiar with it. For me it's a convenient way to include transmissions that are too long just to add as "after the jump" supplements and that aren't otherwise posted on the internet for easy linking.

The other is of course the substance of the message. Mr. Ehrler is a former PanAm and Northwest Airlines employee, who was on duty at PanAm when its flight 103 was blown up by Libyan terrorists in 1988. He makes a detailed case about the ineffectiveness, folly, waste, and ultimately self-defeating nature of today's TSA-centric approach to airline security. Sample passage:

>>Let's be clear, explosives have destroyed aircraft, as I well know. And they have been smuggled onto aircraft by the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber. But let's note a few things. First, because of the change in passenger and crew responses neither of the smuggled on-the-person bombers succeeded. Second, the amount of explosive that can be smuggled on-the-person is limited. Third, aircraft, while vulnerable, are not made of glass. As the Aloha "topless" incident demonstrates, they can withstand a large amount of damage and still fly. There have also been many incidents of cargo doors coming open, engines disintegrating and causing holes, etc. where the aircraft has been able to land safely. Fourth, the most devastating bombings have not been caused by bombs on persons, but in cargo holds (see Pan Am 103). It is easier to pack a large amount of explosives into suitcases than on a person so intensive scanning of the luggage/cargo makes perfect sense.

For all these reasons, while bombs on the person are a concern, they should not so concern us that we are unwilling to make reasonable judgments about what threats and responses are appropriate.... Stepping back, if I were to tell you that 30,000 people were dying every year in the air you would be appalled and demand something be done. I can already hear the calls that, "Whatever the 4th amendment says, we need to strip search every passenger to stop the bloodshed." [Etc]

Now, obviously, this is not happening in the air but it is happening on the roads *every year*. And we *can* stop that bloodshed! How? By limiting vehicles to no more than 10mph. ... Yet we, as a society, are *not* willing to do that because we *are* willing to make cost/benefit tradeoffs.<<

I have a lot of respect for Amy Klobuchar, and I can easily imagine her -- with her Midwestern-sensible attitude and her background as a tough and successful prosecutor -- advancing this common-sense case. Let's hope. As mentioned here several times (and by Jeff Goldberg), it's not realistic to expect the TSA to be self-limiting. It's our politicians' job to help set the liberty-versus-security balance, and it's time to turn up the pressure on them to do so. 

Link to the item on Scribd is here, or read below.

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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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