I Opt In! And Other TSA News of the Day

hawley.jpg1) Permanent emergency. Kip Hawley, right, who was TSA administrator during GW Bush's second term, has an important and eminently sensible-seeming big essay today in the WSJ on re-thinking airport security. I was out of the country during most of his time in office and have never met or interviewed him, so I don't know how what he says now matches what he did then. Also, I have not yet read his new book laying out his views at greater length. But at face value this essay makes convincing points about "security theater," which I hope will carry extra heft because of his background.

Most of Hawley's points accord with my pre-existing views, so naturally I think they're correct. But on one, he has changed my mind, or at least opened it. If you've been in countries where you can keep your shoes on when being screened -- as I've recently experienced, for instance, in both Australia and China -- you are amazed by how much this reduces the cumbersomeness and delay of the screening process. Hawley says he came to TSA determined to change that rule but became convinced that it still mattered. You can read his case for yourself.

Here is a point so obviously true that I wish Romney and Obama were competing to embrace it. An item on Hawley's must-do list is:

Eliminate baggage fees: Much of the pain at TSA checkpoints these days can be attributed to passengers overstuffing their carry-on luggage to avoid baggage fees. The airlines had their reasons for implementing these fees, but the result has been a checkpoint nightmare. Airlines might increase ticket prices slightly to compensate for the lost revenue, but the main impact would be that checkpoint screening for everybody will be faster and safer.

2) I opt in! As I've mentioned more than a few times, I take a dim view of the TSA's new "backscatter" full-body-scan machines. That is because they use X-rays, and my policy toward ionizing radiation is to avoid it when I can. Yes, I am aware that sitting at high altitude inside an airplane exposes you to extra cosmic radiation. But unless you travel in a lead-lined plane, which creates engineering challenges of its own, that's an inextricable part of the flying equation. About backscatter machines you have a choice, and I have chosen to opt-out.

But if my concern is about needless (in my view) exposure to X-rays, then there is no reason to worry about the similar-seeming but technically different other kind of full-body scanner. This is the millimeter wave machine. Sometime later I will describe a meeting that Jeffrey Goldberg and I had, in February, with TSA officials to explain how these machines work, and what images the operators see. The point for the moment is: millimeter-wave machines are of course based on a form of radio-frequency transmission, not X-rays. I know that there are scenarios and hypotheses in which radio-frequency waves can theoretically be dangerous. But my working policy is:
   X-rays are assumed dangerous unless demonstrated to be safe
   Radio waves are assumed safe unless demonstrated to be dangerous.

So I recently opted-in to my first millimeter-wave scan, at DC's National Airport, and lived to tell about it (although I look for lines with metal detectors as my first choice). Here's the handy guide. (roundish in shape, transparent open sides): I opt in.

Backscatter scan (two big boxes that you stand between): I opt out.


3) Or are you just glad to see me? A reader who has lived and worked around the world sends the not-entirely-constructive-in-spirit plan he has for his next trip through security.

My prank is somewhat tasteless, so be forewarned.  It's taking Jeffrey Goldberg's kilt proposal and turning it up to eleven.  I want to opt-out while wearing a large dildo strapped to my inner-thigh.  The look on the screener's face when he discovers it would be priceless.  As far as I can tell, the list of prohibited items says nothing about large latex appendages, so I couldn't be accused of trying to smuggle anything in. 

Of course, with my luck, the whole situation would spiral out of control and end up going viral on the internet - not exactly the way I wish to gain international notoriety. It also strikes me as a good way to get fast-tracked onto the No-Fly List. 

Pleasurable to think about, but never something I'd actually do.

Which brings us back to a central argument of Kip Hawley's piece: that the cookie-cutter experience most passengers have with the TSA makes it harder for travelers to think of the agency as helping us all avoid extreme risks, and easier to think of it as a rote rule-enforcer to be exasperated with, and to think subversive thoughts about. In the long term its effectiveness depends on people feeling that they are working with the TSA rather than against it. Let's hope Hawley's essay makes a difference.

Millimeter wave

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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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