Every Nation Gets the TSA It Deserves

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Yesterday Jeffrey Goldberg told the astonishing story of his mother-in-law's run-in with TSA screeners, and I had complaints of my own. I followed mine with a quote from a stalwart Republican reader who said: the Bush Administration may have set this machinery into motion, but isn't it Obama's responsibility now? Why, he asked, do liberals act as if

...DHS is apparently some sort of unmoored federal bureaucracy, unanswerable to the White House, randomly stopping innocent people and embarrassing the United States.

‪If you guys [ie, people who criticized Bush-Cheney security excesses] act like our President can't control these people (DHS/TSA), who will? ‬

The full answer, of course, involves the ratchet effect of "security" measures. It's easy for politicians to slap on extra "precautions," in the name of keeping us safe; and by the same logic it is hyper-perilous for any politician ever to suggest their removal. After all, eventually there will be another attack, another death, another thing that has gone wrong -- and at that moment all fingers will point at the leader who "let down our guard." I made that case more fully back in 2010.

Here are two other specific answers. First, from Jim Kakalios, a physics professor at the University of Minnesota:

Muons have a half-life of 2.2 microseconds.  In less time than that, the GOP would be howling for President Obama's head if he were to unilaterally disassemble the TSA.  Consider the reaction from the right when some idiot FAILED to ignite a bomb in his underwear. 

I do not know what the President's own views on this matter are, but your reader, who states that he is a conservative, should not be surprised or disappointed that Pres. Obama has not, all on his own, changed the structure of the TSA. It has been made abundantly clear that the President would be forced to pay a terrible price for such a common sense move.

And from David Moles of San Francisco:

Regarding your reader who sees the "unmanageable" TSA as a symptom of our inability, as a nation, to control our government:

It would almost be comforting to think that as a nation we all hate the TSA, dread the ever-tighter security ratchet and have nothing but contempt for security theater. I say "almost" because the corollary would be that your correspondent's right and the lunatic unpleasantness is a sign that government is already out of control.

But there's a much simpler explanation, which is that, unlike you and me (and, I assume, unlike your conservative correspondent) most people in this country don't fly very much, and when they do, they don't expect to enjoy it. Many people in this country (even otherwise quite sensible people) are at least a little afraid of flying, and many people in this country are afraid of terrorism, and both fears are far out of proportion to the actual risk of either; terrorism on an airplane is the stuff of nightmares. Any politician that made reining in the TSA a cornerstone of his or her campaign would attract a small constituency of aviation buffs and frequent flyers -- and a storm of gleeful attack ads accusing said politician of being weak on national security and soft on terrorism.

(The same of course goes for the INS and for Customs and Border Protection, in spades. Most Americans don't travel internationally, don't speak a foreign language, and don't believe the rest of the world has anything to teach us -- certainly nothing important enough that making it easier for scholars, artists and tourists to visit the US would be worth the risk of making it easier for illicit immigrants to sneak in and take our jobs.)

I don't think that as a nation we've lost control of our government. But I don't assume that as a nation we all think the way I do, either. If we want to change the way Homeland Security behaves, first we need to change the way our neighbors want it to behave.

P.S. I would love to see good statistical evidence that I'm wrong! Then maybe we could present that same evidence to some politicians' pet pollsters.

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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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