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Terrorism and airport security

You may have noticed recently that yet more airline regulations have made lines longer and slower, and restricted what can be carried on board further, all in the name of security. We want to be safe, no doubt about it. We want to believe that our government, whose job is ostensibly to safeguard our security, can stop terrorism. It cannot.

9/11 was a godsend to George Bush. It made his popularity shoot through the roof and gave him a free hand to expand the government and the powers of the president. Saying that he would catch the evildoers made his subjects feel safe. One terrorist attack in New York sent people in Florida, Texas and Tennessee running for hills. I remember during the 2004 election hearing more than one American interviewed say that they were voting for George Bush because, without him, the terrorists might take over. Terrorists cannot take over the United States, but they can goad it into destroying itself. Al Qaeda achieved a lot to that effect. But now that bin Laden is dead, I guess there will be no more terrorism.

What are the odds that you will die of terrorism? They are actually less than the odds you will win the lottery. But politicians love terrorism because they can create new illusions to make you believe they are in control. Vote for me, I am tough on terrorism. I have a plan to kill all the terrorists. They try to get us thinking about terrorism when we are more likely to die of snakebites, drowning in the bathtub and eating peanut butter. (Peanut butter grows a deadly mould when it goes off. That’s the limit of my helpful household hints.) They maintain the illusion of security by getting us to confuse real safety with safety measures. Believing is seeing.

Actually, I wonder if the likelihood of a terrorist bombing on an airplane will increase. The Transport Security Administration, the TSA, it turns out, is not the rock we once thought it was. According to a House Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations (presumably they are the ones to thank for keeping us safe, with a name like that), there have been 25,000 airport security breaches in the past ten years. Representative Jason Chaffetz called the TSA’s operating procedures “security theater”. “There’s a better, smarter, safer way to do this, and the TSA isn’t prioritizing here,” Chaffetz said. “How do we be more secure but less invasive? We have to find that balance.” Fortunately, there is a way. Leave it to a politician not to realise it does not lie with more government.

Airplane security itself is a popular idea—we want to know that the planes we are flying on are safe. As such, there is no reason to believe that the airlines could not conduct sufficiently thorough security checks themselves. After all, if someone with a bomb got through, the airline’s credibility would collapse and it could go out of business. The market holds it accountable. But how is the government accountable in the same way? Which politician can you blame and threaten not to vote for when the TSA makes a mistake? It wasn’t MY fault, every single one of them would say. The TSA, like most government departments, is thus wholly unaccountable, and agents can do the most irrational security checks without fear of losing their jobs.

The TSA has the authority to feel up your children. You may recall a viral video of a TSA agent rubbing a young girl’s inner thighs and running her fingers inside the top of the girl’s jeans. How many six year olds do you think might be carrying concealed AK-47s? Obviously not all TSA agents are pedophiles, but if you were a pedophile, you would have found your calling. Is there any reason they thought a 95 year-old woman was a security threat and ordered her to remove her adult diaper? The private sector, the accountable part of the world, would never have done that. TSA agent rules also state they should give extra “attention” to anyone who shows contempt for them. That’s actually everyone. It makes sense to pull aside the angry people, because, as Gene Healy of the Cato Institute put it, “making a scene on the airport security line is sound strategy for anyone trying to sneak a bomb onto a plane.” They now call screeners “officers” and give them uniforms that look almost like those of police. A pilot who writes for Salon had a pair of safety scissors, you know, the ones for children that couldn’t cut butter, taken away from him by airport security. The petty dictators in the bureaucracy love their little scraps of power, and they win more and more of it. (What would George Carlin say about it?)

Oh, sorry, sorry, airport security staff, you are just keeping us safe. So is the over one trillion dollars that has been spent since 9/11. Professors John Mueller and Mark Stewart co-authored a paper that found that, “to be deemed cost-effective, [the extra trillion] would have to deter, prevent, foil, or protect against 1,667 otherwise successful Times-Square type attacks per year, or more than four per day.” They also found that anti-terrorism spending outpaced all anti-crime spending by $15b a year. I wonder if ever more security at the airport has done anything at all to make us safer. It goes without saying that it hasn’t prevented any terrorist bombing of malls, public buildings, public transportation and so on, because there are no security checks there. Making the airplanes safe is like trying to stop up one hole in a sieve. Besides, how would a machine that checks for bombs and guns have prevented 9/11? No bombs or guns were involved. (Find more on how overblown terrorism is here.) It doesn’t really matter. Your odds of being killed by a terrorist, according to all risk analysts, economists and anyone else who knows what they are talking about, are essentially zero. The private sector—the insurance companies—offer terrorism insurance, implying they have a handle on the risks the government does not. Because these people look at facts, rather than emotions, they know that statistically you are more likely to drown in the bathtub and die falling off a ladder. Maybe we should ban bathtubs and ladders.

But that’s not the point. For a politician, no spending of your money is too much spending of your money, and no excuse is more effective than keeping you safe and protecting your freedom. Increasing spending increases the size, scope and power of government, and thus its freedom vis-à-vis yours. And the more spending bills get passed, the more riders there are on those bills that give money to friends. Why do you let such incompetent and corrupt people handle your money? I guess because you don’t have a choice.

A great way of sucking your money away from you is to scare you. On Feb 11, 2003, FBI chief Robert Mueller told the Senate Committee on Intelligence “the greatest threat is from al-Qaeda cells in the US that we have not yet identified” and claimed somehow to know that “al-Qaeda maintains the ability and the intent to inflict significant casualties in the US with little warning.” When he went back to the committee two years later, he never mentioned the secret FBI report that said that after more than three years of intense hunting, the agency had not found a single terrorist sleeper cell in the US, even though the 2002 intelligence estimate said there were up to 5000 terrorists connected to al-Qaeda. Perhaps this oversight was induced by paranoia, as was presumably that which led George Bush to talk about nuclear weapons and Saddam Hussein in the same breath.

Every day on the news for years after 9/11 (and probably still to this day, though I avoid TV news now), some government spokesjackoff or his corporate media servant told us about the horrors of terrorism to our fragile little countries. It was as if each news program, each politician, each conservative think tank moron was baiting his competitors into saying more about terrorism, how wonderful America is, and how bad our enemies are going to get it. And the public (ie. the average voter) tended to parrot their views while believing they are thinking for themselves.

And I have not even mentioned the kicker: government is the main cause of terrorism. Just ask the terrorists. Governments like the US cause the grievances terrorists rail against and governments like Saudi Arabia fund Islamist militancy around the world. By the way, those people who say terrorists are irrational and can’t be reasoned with don’t know what they are talking about. There is overwhelming evidence out there to the contrary, available to anyone who is willing to listen to people other than George Bush on the subject. But the reason we work so hard to combat it is that we do not understand it. Terrorism is almost always in response to state aggression. Ask Kurds, Chechens, Palestinians, Afghanis, Basques, Uighurs and the North Irish why some of their compatriots resort to terrorism and they will point the finger at a state that had repressed them for many years before they got desperate for a solution that was not available through peaceful means. And governments know it. Remember when Osama was assassinated in May and Barack said the world was now a safer place? Embassies and airports around the world immediately took extra precautions.

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