'Like a Full-Body Massage': Thinking About the TSA

A reader writes:

>>Yesterday I deliberately opted out of the back-scatter machine at Toronto airport so as to see what the enhanced pat-down is about. I must say I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It is akin to a full-body massage. Just to be sure that I am not the only one who has this unusual view, I posted my experience on Facebook, and immediately several of my friends concurred.

Oh, I forgot to mention that these friends of mine are all gay.<<

In the "but seriously now" category, I think it's worth reviewing why people disagree about intimate pat-downs and the like. The more I think about this, the more discouraged I am that there is any feasible resolution.

Disagreements about, you know, "ideas." I think there are three big ones here, though not usually discussed explicitly:

1) Direct versus indirect costs of terrorism. All security measures are justified relative to the direct terrorist damage they might prevent. The plane that would come down, the bomb that would go off. But anyone who's ever thought about terrorist movements realizes that the real damage is indirect -- it's the fear they induce, the (over) reaction they provoke, the costs they impose as a society tries to guard against repetition. That's what Osama bin Laden noted in a tape after 9/11 -- that on the cheap, his attackers had not simply killed 3,000 people but induced a response that will cost the U.S. trillions of dollars over a decade or more (if the costs of war in Iraq are included, as they should be). More on the topic here.

So people who say, we can't forgo any measure that might reduce risk, are concentrating on the direct threat of terrorism. Those who say, let's consider the distortions we're imposing on ourselves, are thinking of the indirect risks. It's hard to bridge these outlooks.

2) Prevention versus resilience. People who study terrorism -- or crime, or natural disasters -- also generally conclude that after a certain point, it's better to work on ways to recover from an attack, or limit its damage, rather than spend limitlessly toward the impossible end of reducing the risk to zero. The design of the Internet is an extreme example: it was built, in the Cold War era, to repair itself (by re-routing traffic) if some nodes were destroyed in an attack. Or air bags in cars: we try very hard to prevent crashes, but since some still occur, air bags make them less dangerous. Or: fortified cockpit doors in airliners. There could well be another terrorist who gets onto an airplane with weapons; but there will never be "another 9/11," because cockpit-door design, and alert fellow passengers, will keep hijackers from turning a plane into a missile.

As applies to airport security, this approach means trying very hard to keep dangerous passengers and cargo off airplanes -- but also thinking about how the same money, effort, social friction, etc might be used in "resilience" efforts. Which leads to:

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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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