Today’s Wall Street Journal editorial page has a pair of commentaries taking nearly opposite positions on the recent controversy over TSA’s screening procedures and practices. Gabriel Schoenfeld defends TSA’s invasive pat-downs as necessary to prevent terror attacks using non-metallic weapons such as C-4 and PETN. Peggy Noonan says TSA has gone too far.
Schoenfeld and Noonan are opposed for at least two reasons:
- They have different perspectives about the tolerable risk of terrorism via aircraft. Noonan would tolerate higher risks than Schoenfeld.
- They have different perceptions of the intangible costs of enhanced screening. Noonan believes public support for TSA is declining (and will continue to do so) because invasive screening is humiliating and undignified. Schoenfeld believes these are acceptable costs to achieve better security.
Schoenfeld is a well known advocate for aggressive action against terrorists and the states that harbor them. It is therefore unsurprising that he would prefer the lowest feasible terror risk. Noonan is a former White House speech writer and author of several books on politics, religion and culture. It is unsurprising that she would tolerate somewhat greater risk because politics is, at its root, about reaching compromise.
To the extent that Schoenfeld and Noonan disagree about the tolerable level of risk from terrorism in air travel, this is an irreconcilable difference. However, to the extent that there are tradeoffs that must be made in a democratic society, there is a surprising amount of room for reconciliation. As I show below, reconciliation will require greater compromise from Schoenfeld.
TECHNICAL EFFECTIVENESS VS. POLITICAL ACCEPTABILITY
Schoenfeld believes body scans and invasive pat-downs are “unpleasant but necessary” in a world where terrorists have available to them weapons that are not detectable using conventional metal detectors. Noonan implies this point of view is detached from reality, because a wide swath of the public finds them much worse than unpleasant and is unconvinced they are necessary. She envisions President Obama hiring a Special Assistant for Reality “whose sole job it is to explain and interpret the American people to him.” The President needs such a person, she says, because he is permanently encased in a bubble that insulates him from the real world:
You cannot shake the bubble. Wherever you go, there it is. And the worst part is that the army of staff, security and aides that exists to be a barrier between a president and danger, or a president and inconvenience, winds up being a barrier between a president and reality.
The problem of air travel security has multiple aspects, some of which are technical and some of which are not. Schoenfeld focuses on these technical aspects.
The dilemma is obvious. If the TSA makes a visible hole in its screening procedures … it will be only a matter of time before our pitiless adversaries—who closely observe our methods—fill the hole with lethal results.
We made the same point yesterday, noting that as long as TSA permits the use of conventional metal detectors, it telegraphs exactly how a terrorist armed with PETN or plastic explosives should proceed — which is to avoid security lanes with advanced imaging machines and be completely free of any metal that would set off the alarm. It is impractical, and probably would be politically fatal, for TSA to conduct invasive pat-downs on everyone who passes through a metal detector. It can do so randomly, with very limited effectiveness, or it must profile. TSA’s current practice is to profile illogically: conduct invasive pat-downs to screen for non-metallic weapons on travelers who alarm the metal detector, as if triggering a metal detector is relevant.
Schoenfeld makes a plea for trusting TSA, but he does so in a way that appears to insult those who disagree by implying they have unacceptable motives:
Aviation security is a technical issue. The attempt to turn it into a political one, with charges of political correctness, has dangers of its own. If our security officials do not enjoy public support for measures—unpleasant though they may be—to keep the skies safe, we risk increasing the chances of a deadly lapse in a system with a remarkably impressive record over nine years.
THE INTANGIBLE COSTS OF INVASIVE SCREENING
Noonan, in contrast, accepts the legitimacy of the opposition. In her imaginary dialogue, the Special Assistant for Reality explains to the President why travelers are outraged by TSA’s new procedures:
It’s not an inconvenience, it’s a humiliation. In the new machine, and in the pat-downs, citizens are told to spread their feet and put their hands in the air. It’s an attitude of submission—the same one the cops make the perps assume on “America’s Most Wanted.” Then, while you stand there in public in the attitude of submission, strangers touch intimate areas of your body. It’s a violation of privacy. It leaves people feeling reduced. It’s like society has decided you’re a meat sack and not a soul. Humans have a natural, untaught understanding of the apartness of their bodies, and they don’t like it when their space is violated. They recoil, and protest.
Schoenfeld recognizes that TSA practices have fueled public outrage, but he says these problems can he solved with better employee training:
So is the flying public rightly angered? The media have documented a string of monstrous cases in which prosthetic breasts have been exposed and urostomy bags worn by bladder-cancer patients have been disconnected, with humiliating consequences.
These incidents certainly demand better training for security personnel. But they do not invalidate the need for intrusive screening.
This is false. The examples Schoenfeld cites as “monstrous cases” only became so after the fact, when it became clear that it was a false positive, that the object detected was indeed a prosthetic breast and the urostomy bag did not contain a dangerous liquid. Had either case been instead a true positive — a very cleverly hidden but potentially lethal weapon — TSA would have been highly praised for preventing a truly diabolical scheme, not pilloried for humiliating travelers who deserve unusual respect because of their medical conditions.
But the odds are overwhelmingly against TSA. It’s current procedures require it to egregiously violate the privacy of the many in hopes of detecting the few. What Noonan recognizes, but Schoenfeld does not, is the public will not tolerate such invasions of privacy very long. Return to her imaginary dialogue:
President: What should I do?
Special Assistant for Reality: Back off. Say you spent a day watching YouTube. You’re not giving in to pressure, you’re conceding to common sense. “Free men and women have a right not to be trifled with. We’ll find a better way.”
At this point, the debate between Schoenfeld and Noonan seems to be stuck. Noonan does not identify what she means by common sense or “a better way,” and Schoenfeld appears to deny that either are needed. Common sense is in short supply at TSA when it subjects flight crews to invasive screening, a practice it now says it intends to abandon because of crew resistance and union pressure. But common sense alone likely would be insufficient for managing travelers with special medical conditions, particularly if their conditions correlated with terrorist opportunity, such as the “monstrous cases” Schoenfeld admits but cannot credibly prevent with more training.
A better way might be the “trusted traveler” program former American Airlines CEO Robert Crandall has suggested. The TSA’s sister agency, Customs and Border Protection, runs such programs, and private firms tried to make TSA’s Registered Traveler program work analogously. They failed because TSA refused to allow them to offer their customers less intensive screening in return for passing a prior security review.
A trusted traveler program may be the only solution for managing travelers with special medical conditions in a dignified manner. For every terrorist disguising plastic explosives in a prosthesis, TSA will humiliate hundreds or thousands of honest travelers, with predictable damage to its reputation and public support.