Tuesday, November 23, 2010

TSA, A-OK? A few quick thoughts

There has been a lot of buzz on the left end and the libertarian end (it's getting harder and harder to say "left and right" as a catch-all... which is a good thing I think!) of the blogsphere about the TSA's full body scans. I'm not going to link all the reactions - I'm sure you'll have no problem finding them.

There are really two questions at hand: (1.) would I submit to this?, and (2.) should the TSA do these scans?

The first doesn't have much of anything to do with rights, political philosophy, the state, or anything else we talk about here. I, for one, have no qualms at all about getting scanned. I'm going to be flying the first week of December and I plan on walking right through the scanner, for two reasons. First, although I'm not a naturally immodest person, nudity doesn't make me squeemish either as long as it's either functional or fun. Who really cares? Not me. Second, I wouldn't want to be patted down if I could help it. So the scanners are fine with me.

The deeper question is whether the TSA should be obligating this in the first place, because that involves state coercion of people who may not have the same indifference to the scanners that I do. That's tougher. But the "persumption of liberty" here isn't quite as easy to address as I think a lot of people are trying to make it. I know I sound like a broken record sometimes on this, but there is an externality problem of sorts going on here - and it's similar to the incentives of vaccination. The costs I do incur by going through the scanner benefit my fellow passengers who are assured I don't have a bomb on me. Likewise, when a fellow passenger chooses not to be scanned, they impose a cost on me - they expose me to the risk of terrorism against my will. Moreover, the non-scanners are self-selected. Anyone interested in doing harm will obviously choose not to be scanned - it's not like scanning would be randomly assigned if people were given the choice.

To be sure, the risks involved are probably quite minor. But there seems to be a reason why they introduced the scanners and why they're working on scanners that can see beneath your skin. Jeff Goldberg of The Atlantic has been making a name for himself recently by noting the prospect of doomsday scenarios (e.g. - his article on the prospect of Israel bombing Iran), but he recently had a short piece that I think is worth looking at about the prospect of "cavity bombs" becoming more common for terrorist attacks. He writes:

"But, unfortunately, the threat comes not only from explosive devices on people, but in people. Our country has not yet experienced the terror of a cavity bomb -- a bomb inserted into the rectum or vagina of a suicide terrorist -- but this is what experts, in and out of government, fear is coming. We've already seen the technique used in the Middle East: Colleagues of an Islamist terrorist named Abdullah Asiri detonated a bomb inserted up his rectum last year by cell phone in an unsuccessful attempt to kill a top Saudi counter-terrorism official.

Three experts I spoke to this weekend -- two of whom are currently serving in government in counter-terrorism capacities -- believe it is only a matter of time before the technique is tried here. "We have nothing in our arsenal that would detect these bombs," one told me. "There is no taboo that we can see against this technique. Suicide is suicide, it doesn't matter how gross it is.""

It seems reasonable to assume that the new scanners were motivated by the assessment of precisely this sort of risk, although as Goldberg notes the current scanners cannnot operate like an x-ray to catch these things. In a way, safe x-ray scanners might be an improvement. Seeing people's skeleton's seems less invasive than seeing their skin. So the emergence of such machines might settle the issue. Either way, my point is that when initiatives like this are rolled out they usually have some sort of impetus, and this might be related. So the concern about safety is real.

OK, but what can be said from the perspective of what is appropriate for the TSA to do in light of all this? Well as I noted, to require these scanners would be an obvious involuntary imposition of costs. But to allow non-scanned passengers to ride with scanned passengers like me would also be an obvious involuntary imposition of costs (one that I don't think the left and libertarian blogs are really acknowledging). The solution, it seems to me, is to provide a choice by flight. Have "TSA approved" flights and have "non-TSA approved" flights, where passengers get whatever kind of screening the airline wants to provide itself. That way, nobody would be imposing costs on anyone else. The federal government has a legitimate role to play in national security so the involvement of the TSA in TSA approved flights is perfectly legitimate. Where would you fly if this were implemented? The short wait with less safety measures or the longer wait with safety measures? I'd probably go with the longer wait, and recent survey evidence suggests that two thirds of the American public would too. Then we would let the market decide. People opposed to the scanning in all likelihood would have less flights available to them, unless of course they wanted to pay more for the convenience. Or if the tides turn and more people go for the non-TSA approved flights, then safety conscious travelers might have to pay relatively more for the extra safety measures. The point is - this seems to take care of all the "presumptions of liberty". One thing that clearly doesn't ensure liberty is to let self-selected non-scanned passengers ride with scanned passengers that don't want to ride with them.

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