Can a nation divided be secure?
Last week brought another glimpse of a truly American scene. At airports in California and around the nation, Thanksgiving travelers were greeted by activists urging them to bring things to a screeching halt by refusing to go through body scanners and instead to demand manual pat-downs, a more time-consuming method of screening.
The idea was to pressure the Transportation Security Administration, the federal agency in charge of passenger protection, and the airlines to rescind restrictions — including the high-tech scanners and invasive pat-downs — that went into effect this fall as the high travel season approached.
Certainly some people were concerned about the effects, even if none are known, of the minute levels of radiation used during the scanning. Some were put off by the new pat-downs.
But some of the brouhaha also seemed to fit right into the country’s us-against-them mentality. And it got wall-to-wall attention, despite the fact that polls showed all along that Americans were overwhelmingly supportive of the security measures.
A nation founded on a disdain for authority has seemed to go out of its way lately to exercise that muscle. Parents reject the advice of doctors to vaccinate their children, arguing that father and mother know best. People in several states overthrow the political establishment to nominate candidates who pledge to stiff-arm government.
In California, voters insist the budget can be drastically cut without any harm to their favorite programs, because they don’t trust the politicians who tell them it just isn’t possible.
In most cases, this approach serves to delay any sort of sober reckoning over how, for example, to make sure medicines are safe, or to stem the fiscal bleeding in California or to make sure airline passengers are ever more secure as they fly.
The reaction was typified by this bracing headline last week in a local paper:
“TSA: We are not perverts.”
Brian Michael Jenkins looked on with dismay, if not surprise. To the longtime authority on terrorism, the weeks-long brouhaha over the TSA tactics stemmed from a witches’ brew: New moves by security agents. Holiday passengers who, unlike regular travelers, were surprised by the new system. Long-time opponents of airport security who saw an opening to attack. And a 24/7 media machine that can blow almost anything out of proportion.
Jenkins, based at Santa Monica’s Rand Corp., blamed much of the mess on “the news media, particularly the electronic media and the blogs, making it a story.”
“We get terrorism and sexual titillation all in the same paragraph. That’s irresistible to the media,” he said.
Timing is everything in the security business. On Christmas Day last year, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up an airliner nearing Detroit with explosives hidden in his underwear, a move that led to the heightened tactics. Had that just occurred, any discussion of more stringent security would be moot.
“There’s no question that as the most recent terrorism event fades into memory, people slide into a kind of complacency, and security measures that were welcomed — even demanded — by people at the time become irksome, and people react against them,” Jenkins said.
TSA spokesman Nico Melendez said part of the problem has been educating passengers about what to expect, an effort that can be hard to pull off at this time of the year, when infrequent flyers abound.
“It’s kind of a weird period of time,” he said. “Every holiday season comes around and we forget people come to the airport who may not have flown in the last 10 years and may not even know what the TSA is,” he said.
Ignorance of what to expect is one thing, but as the coverage wore on last week, in seeped a bit of the attitude that has dominated politics of late.
“I think our nation is headed into a nation of controlling the people, telling us what to do. Our rights have been taken away from us,” Lori Lamb, an actor who supported the effort to boycott the scanners, told The Times at LAX on Wednesday.
That view turns on its ear the whole theory of security in the post- 9/11 age: Stopping crime, domestically, requires cops on the beat who get assertive back-up from neighborhood-watch civilians. Security in the skies depends on cooperation between the authorities and passengers who spot and take action. If the two groups are in discord, the system can stumble.
“We have come to a state in our own society where we’ve conjured a deep separation between ourselves and the government, and it’s sort of us versus them,” said Jenkins. “And that strikes me as a bit off because I think that ultimately, our defenses against terrorism are not going to be found in the body scanners, the pat-down, this or that procedure. I think our security rests ultimately upon our own courage, our own unity, our own self-reliance, our own sense of community.”
The “us-versus-them” sentiment in this country, he said, shifts the discussion from which tactics should be used by screeners to whether they’re groping passengers. He said he was unaware of Europeans responding the same way to the adopting of similar measures there.
“What was once the home of the brave has become a nation in many respects of cringing angry people, and that in itself to me is ultimately the greatest threat to our liberties. We can look at a scanner and say, ‘Does this work?’ That’s an issue we can address. The idea that everyone has turned this into an assault on government.... Everything is a reality show today. It’s all fabricated drama.”
Jenkins spoke on Tuesday night, as cable shows and the Internet were still rampaging on the subject. In the end, the protest fizzled.
Of the tens of thousands of passengers who streamed into LAX on Wednesday, only 204 opted not to undergo the body scans and instead asked for a manual pat-down, a figure lower than on most days, according to TSA spokesman Melendez
Since the new procedures went into effect nationwide, he said, 42 million passengers have gone through TSA screening, and only 3,000 have filed formal complaints.
As if the fever had broken, everyone seemed to be feeling better on Wednesday. Passengers reported less hassle than usual from TSA personnel.
“My impression was they put all their nicest, friendliest staff members on today,” passenger Victor Allen told The Times after arriving at John Wayne Airport in Orange County.
They felt the same way about us.
“Passengers were overwhelmingly supportive, complimentary and reassuring to our work force,” said Melendez. “There’s a recognition of the scrutiny and the pain of the last two weeks.”
Each Sunday, The Week examines implications of major stories. It is archived at latimes.com/theweek