Omnibus TSA Fiesta

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A few days ago I quoted several readers who were exasperated with my complaints about "security theater" and the TSA and thought this all belonged in the category of "whiny professor" behavior.

Now, we'll hear once again from the other side. What follows is a sample of messages from readers who, unlike the previous set, have become more rather than less annoyed with the rituals and protocols now invoked in the name of security.

First, from John Barry Smith of California, a former military air crewman and current holder of a commercial pilot certificate. I had asked why some airlines insisted that noise-canceling headsets be turned off for takeoff, when they could not possibly interfere with aircraft equipment. His answer:

>>It's all part of security theater and establishment of authority.

For example: "Put seat backs in upright position." That order has nothing to do with safety but everything with establishing authority of the attendants over the passengers.

If you make the passengers do something stupid now, (move seat back two inches) then you can probably make them do something smart later on such as opening the emergency doors and exiting in an orderly manner.

The idea that a hundred dollar IPod or phone or headset could crash millions of dollars of electronics has always been funny to me. Impossible but...it's a pretext to establish the authority of attendants in a crowded cabin.

Also, when an aircraft diverts and passenger arrested for trying to open passenger cabin door in flight is pure security theater. It's impossible to open that door in flight when cabin is pressurized, even if all passengers tried if their lives depended on it.

Remember, the airlines never want the passengers to think they are in a fuel laded bomb with ignition sources yards away but they are in a restaurant....nice food; a bar...nice drinks, a bedroom...nice pillows, a library....nice book/magazines, a living room...nice chatting, a movie theater....nice film.

I've always thought it funny for a passenger to shout out to another passenger with a common name, "Hi, Jack!" ... or...sing the National Anthem to be heard...."Bombs bursting in air...."

The country has the stink of fear all around and fear leads to anger and anger to hate and hate to violence and the police/TSA are the first to feel it and exploit it.<<

And on the same theme, from a friend who works in the tech industry:

>>As with most things related to air travel, 9/11 changed this too.

Around the 3rd or 4th flight where a member of the crew insisted that "all electronic devices with an on/off switch must be turned off," I came to two realizations. First, I would probably have to listen to my plane take-off and land every flight for the rest of my life. Second, I would gladly pay a substantial premium for noise-canceling headsets with no power switch. Sadly, no electronics company has brought one to market.<<

More after the jump.

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From a reader in Norway:

>>Here's one thing I've been thinking about: What happens if somebody phones in claiming that there's a bomb in the secured area? Presumably, everybody inside is evacuated. Do you have any idea where to? If they go to the pre-screening area, making it four times as crowded as usual, this would multiply the effect of any attack there. An easy countermeasure would be evacuating to a cordoned off part of the tarmac instead.

I guess what saves from too many attacks against check-in areas, subways, sports arenas, etc., is that terrorists seem to be as obsessed with terror theater as we are with security theater. An airplane in flight is so much sexier.<<

About the overall value of the TSA emphasis:

>>Reading the just-published reader defenses on your blog I was reminded of a point often missed by the TSA's supporters: opportunity cost. The TSA's budget for 2010 is approximately $7.8 billion; assuming an average salary of $200,000, plus 30% for benefits, that budget would fund 30,000 additional family practice physicians. How much pain, suffering, and death could we eliminate with an extra 30,000 doctors, fully paid, tending to the un- or under-insured in our communities? Of course, it doesn't have to be doctors. It could be nurses (100,000), teachers (130,000 of them), or even FBI agents (70,000 new ones). Whatever kind of misery or injustice we're trying to address, though, I have a very hard time seeing how we're getting our money's worth from the TSA.<<

And from a reader in Canada:

>>My best friend and former university roommate is a security expert. He consults to governments around the world, including spending about 50% of his time working for you guys. Because his specialty is human migration (which is inextricably linked to airport security for obvious reasons) he's pretty knowledgable about passenger screening.

He would, I think, confidently tell you that proper security is a function of the competence of personnel. He'd offer the view that no amount of technology and screening regulations will ever substitute for vigilant, properly-trained and experienced people running the process. A quick look at the apparent competence of the people working in our airports (and I'd lump Canada in with the US in this regard) clearly shows that we're employing people on the lower rungs of the employability ladder. Our security bureaucracies understand this completely, but persist in this approach for cosmetic and political reasons.

The truth is that in the case of airport and travel disruption, Bin Laden has won by a mile. We could ditch the bullshit processes we all endure and spend a fraction of what we currently spend on upgrading the skills of our security personnel and we'd be miles ahead. It might be politically unpalatable, but it would undoubtedly lead to equivalent or improved security at greatly reduced cost and traveller disruption.<<

There is a lot more in the mailbag, but that's it for now.

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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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