Stop the TSA

There is one area (and probably many more) in which China is far saner and more reasonable than the US, and that is airport security. In fact, nearly every other country is saner. Airport security in the US is simply insane. We have crossed the brink and dived head first into insanity.

I was delighted to see the sudden flare-up of anti-TSA articles and blog posts this week, as thousands more of the infamous body scanners (and check out that link) are installed in US airports, and thousands of passengers refused to suffer the indignity and possible health repercussions of walking through them. And then there are the new, incredibly intrusive pat-downs. Don’t get me started.

In one especially shocking incident that has taken the intertubes by storm this weekend, the TSA were no better than thugs. It’s reached the point where something has to be done – like abolish the TSA.


Ever the voice of reason, James Fallows puts it all in perspective:

To make the point for the zillionth time — and, yes, I’d rather say this too often than not say it often enough — it is insane, destructive, and Maginot Line-like in thinking for the U.S. to pour out so many resources, intrude so deeply on liberties, and generate so much domestic and international ill-will in dealing with one area of potential threat, out of all proportion to what it does elsewhere. And, yes, I say this in awareness that the original 9/11 attacks were against airliners and that many terrorist groups seem to have a “terrorism theater” obsession with aviation. Even so, “security” measures that do not pass a common-sense logic test ultimately generate contempt for the entities carrying them out, and for their grasp of the challenge they are undertaking and the security/liberty balance that is involved.

It’s not airport security. It’s airport security theater, a show, an absurd, hideously expensive, intolerably invasive piece of theater, going through the motions for reasons that no one really understands. The airline pilots and flight attendants are up in arms, the travelers are up in arms, everyone is up in arms, yet the TSA keeps spitting out platitudes about keeping us safe through means everyone knows are unnecessary.

Fallows quotes from a friend of his who lived in Shenzhen for many years. This is delightful:

My favorite experience, though, was this: I tend to glower at the folks doing the bag searches before getting on the plane. I guess the agents sense the glowering because twice now, I’ve the Chinese security agents apologize to me for having to do this… one apologized and then whispered to me “Sorry. The Americans make us do this. It’s useless, I’m embarrassed.” On the other occasion, the agent verbally apologized and gave a quick head bow as he rezipped my bag.

On the flight where the first Chinese agent apologized to me, when we arrived in the US and deplaned, we were met by two US agents and a German shepherd which sniffed us all as we passed by. One of the agents must have been 250 pounds and towered over the deplaning passengers, most of whom were Asian. The agents had their batons out, guns visible, and tasers.

What a contrast – an apology from Chinese security agents at the start of the trip and intimidation upon arriving in the US. Welcome to the land of the free and home of the brave. That the governing classes who so piously mouth platitudes about American exceptionalism are silent in the face of these atrocities to the liberties of innocents says more about America’s decline than any of the numerous economic comparisons.

What is it about America that forces us into such extreme overkill? Why must we let Osama Bin Laden have the last laugh, showing him his evil act has left us so traumatized and frightened we have surrendered our critical faculties and become obsessed to the point of irrationality?

Possibly the craziest new TSA procedure is the one calling for intrusive pat-downs of the pilots as they walk to their planes. If the pilot is prone to terrorism, don’t these jackasses know that the pilots have in their hands the ultimate weapon – the plane. What’s the point of searching the pilots for weapons? Why do we keep adding more and more layers of nonsensical pseudo-security? For the answer, as usual, just follow the money.

Sorry if this is a bit overwrought, but as someone who travels a lot and who never ceases to be amazed at the hoax of airport security, I just had to let it out. Please do your part: Refuse to go through the body scanner. That’s the least we all can do. Fallows said in an earlier column some months ago that the only way to get the TSA to stop the nonsense is for enough people to object and to make their voices heard. I’m glad to see people are finally wising up and refusing to go along with this charade.

You have a far better chance of being killed crossing the street than you do of being killed in airline terrorism. Why on earth are we spending all these billions of dollars and putting people through such inconvenience for a threat that is so incredibly remote? Yes, we need airport security, but only within reason. We should follow China’s saner model – going through airport security there is relative bliss.


Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 71 Comments

Thanks FOARP, we see eye to eye on this. It is a fact that the TSA has never stopped an attack – it was on the news last night and the head of the TSA acknowledged it. But of course, he added, we need them and their extreme procedures “just in case.”

Gan Lu, you’re on probation for a while. Disagree all you want, but your strident, personal tone won’t fly. It started with your first comment opening with, “Yet another chapter in Richard’s bromance with J.Fallows,” followed by some very personal nastiness (the comment that didn’t get published), that I would expect from Hong Xing, and I’m not tolerating it. You shout as though I am the only one equating the machines with a type of strip search. Totally false. I respect that you like the US airport screening system and have no problem with its groping, invasive procedures. You can say it in a polite way.

November 18, 2010 @ 12:47 am | Comment

Gan Lu may want to check this link: It’s obvious he has no idea what’s really going on.

November 18, 2010 @ 3:52 am | Comment

@SKC: “No one can be certain about the health risks over time, since they haven’t yet been studied over time.”

That is correct. According to this letter by biochemists, dermatologists and cancer specialists at the U of California SF:

“The majority of their energy is delivered to the skin and the underlying tissue. Thus, while the dose would be safe if it were distributed throughout the volume of the entire body, the dose to the skin may be dangerously high.

The X-ray dose from these devices has often been compared in the media to the cosmic ray exposure inherent to airplane travel or that of a chest X-ray. However, this comparison is very misleading: both the air travel cosmic ray exposure and chest X- rays have much higher X-ray energies and the health consequences are appropriately understood in terms of the whole body volume dose.

In contrast, these new airport scanners are largely depositing their energy into the skin and immediately adjacent tissue, and since this is such a small fraction of body weight/vol, possibly by one to two orders of magnitude, the real dose to the skin is now high.”
****END QUOTE****

The letter further states that adults over age 65, children, those with breast cancer risk, immunocompromised persons (AIDS and cancer patients) are at greatest risk.

The effects on pregnant women and fetuses are not yet determined.

There is risk of sperm mutagenesis due to proximity of testicles to the skin.

So for a traveler, the choice seems to be this:

I, my spouse, my daughter and/or son, and all generations thereafter, could face unknown health and genetic damage by going through a scanning machine that exposes our private parts to be viewed by strangers (with risk too of recorded images that are further distributed).

Or our private parts could be touched, felt, felt up, handled, groped, fondled, inspected, stroked, pressed, massaged, molested, caressed or assaulted – lawfully or unlawfully (different words might apply depending upon the intentions, sexual proclivities and choices of the particular individual agent who we encounter by chance on the security line) – with uncertain expectation of redress and what appears to be an additional risk of civil or criminal penalty or personal consequences (like the pilot who might get fired) for protesting or trying to document the interaction by recording the interaction on my mobile.

Some choice.

November 18, 2010 @ 9:15 am | Comment

John Pistole is a fool and not your friend. Scanners & Pat Downs are not about security, it’s about CONTROL. Do you want unnecessary gamma radiation force upon you and your loved ones? Do you want virtual strip searches performed on you and your family in AMERICA. Do you accept GROPING by government employees and strangers?! Of Course not, so STOP the TSA NOW!! Stop idiotic government intrusion NOW! Do NOT put up with this garbage and stand up for your simple PERSONAL FREEDOMS. I suggest that we Pat Down and Scan John Pistole over & over again and see how he likes it………..within the public eye. Then we do the same thing to his wife and family and all of his relatives. This is what he is doing to YOU. Personally, I’m not allowing any scans and I will resist all Pat Downs. They (TSA) are the enemy of the American public, the TSA is ANTI-AMERICAN. NO SCAN day Wednesday, November 24, 2010…..nation wide. They are the irresponsible ones, not us!
Sue the TSA and its employees in court. Weaken the TSA and destroy it or change it into something that is appropriate. Kick BIG BROTHER out! Go after John Pistole politically. Resist the TSA until we have eliminated them. They must stop kidding Americans because they are not even relevant. Scan luggage, not people. Americans are not items, we are not things, we are free thinking human beings. Think of ways to enhance security within the cohorts that you travel with on each flight. Who on our MILLIONS & MILLIONS of flights have been affected by punk terrorists? And STOP calling them “terrorists”……they are criminals. The term is a “scare” tactic by so called government authority. Authority is afraid of people taking power away from them. Remember the TSA are the real criminals (not you) because they are violating your most fundamental and basic rights of human DIGNITY. We passengers should be screening them!!

With Reason & Anger,

Robert A. Shumway, MD, FACS
La Jolla, CA

November 18, 2010 @ 11:33 pm | Comment

I hate this topic.

Richard: “I respect that you like the US airport screening system and have no problem with its groping, invasive procedures.”

I never said that I “liked” aiport security in the U.S. I also admitted that current procedures are unlikely to catch committed terrorists. What I did say was that U.S. airport security hasn’t been a greater nuisance to me than airport security elsewhere. I’ve never waited very long to pass through, and I don’t find the procedures themselves particularly invasive. Calls to dismantle TSA seem to me to be egregiously wrong-headed. More professionalism and efficiency is in order, not John Pistole’s head on a stake.

Richard: “You shout as though I am the only one equating the machines with a type of strip search.”

1) When did I ever “shout”?

2) It doesn’t really matter that you’re not the first to equate the new scanners with strip searches. All that matters is that you (and others here) endorse the view. In point of fact, strip searches and sexual molestation have very little in common with either the new scanners or the new pat-down procedures. Needless to say, anyone who’s actually been strip searched or sexually molested could tell you that the comparison is false. To suggest otherwise is disingenuous. Demonizing TSA is hardly the proper approach to improving airport security. Moreover, unlike victims of sexual molestation (and strip searches), most of us who travel through U.S. airports will have a choice between passing through the new scanners, being patted-down, or passing through the same old metal detectors we’ve always used. I’m unimpressed. This sky-is-falling outcry is looney.

My initial objection was with your suggestion that airport security in the P.R.C. is “far saner and more reasonable than the US.” It certainly is not. Even without the new scanner technologies in place, Chinese airport security must be seen as part of a much larger security apparatus that is far more invasive than anything Americans must face in the U.S. And procedurally speaking, it takes just a long to pass through Chinese airport security as it does anywhere else I’ve traveled. Six of one, a half dozen of the other. Criticize TSA and the new procedures all you want, but do so without promoting Chinese airport security as a model of sanity. However embarrassing or invasive the new scanners may be (I admitted earlier to not particularly liking the idea of them being used on me), once we leave the airport we’re as free as we’ve ever been. Contrary to some of the loonier arguments being made, installation of the new scanners is not the first step on the road to the apocalypse.

What will you say a year or two from now when the new scanners show up in Chinese airports and you have no choice but to pass through them? Something to look forward to.

Richard: “Disagree all you want, but your strident, personal tone won’t fly. It started with your first comment opening with, ‘Yet another chapter in Richard’s bromance with J.Fallows,’ followed by some very personal nastiness…”

I beg to differ: there was no personal nastiness directed at you or anyone else in my earlier comment. Now that Putz is gone, I feel no need to vent my spleen. In any case, I’m sure I never sunk so low as to call you an “unthinking, obedient lemming.” As far as your bromance with Fallows goes, I’ve commented on it before. Besides, it’s not as if you make an effort to hide your abundance of affection for the guy.

Richard: “Gan Lu, you’re on probation for a while.”

How long is a while?

November 19, 2010 @ 3:57 am | Comment

It’s lifted – all I ask is that you be polite and a little less caustic/personal. Thanks..

About the TSA, we can agree to disagree. I think we’ve argued it to death, and I hate the topic as much as you do.

Bottom line: I have a low threshold for what I perceive to be useless procedures that give extraordinary powers to those administering them, at the expense of the dignity of those paying their salaries. The presupposition that each of us is a potential terrorist, including kids and grandmas and elderly nuns, seems to me an ineffective and wasteful methodology. I am delighted to see both the caustic left and the rigid right go ballistic on this issue. It’s an atrocity, and as much as this topic might be a bore, I can promise you we haven’t heard the last of it yet. This battle’s just getting started.

November 19, 2010 @ 4:33 am | Comment

Even in airports with scanners the TSA is also conducting involuntary “random” “enhanced” pat downs, meaning that you may have no choice as to whether or not you are sexually molested by the government. Keep in mind the enhanced procedures do involve touching the tops and bottoms of the breast (for women) and the groin and genitalia for both sexes with fingers and the palms of the hand. And these are applied to minors too.

Now keep in mind that the overall lifetime chance of being killed by terrorism (including large-scale incidents like 9/11) is about 1/80,000. By contrast in the US your lifetime chance of getting killed in a car accident = 1/100, falling to death=1/246, being shot to death=1/325, electrocution=1/5000, drowning=1/9000. Perhaps most outrageous is that estimates of the prevalence in the general population of people with a predisposition to pedophilia (not necessarily arrested or convicted) in the USA is roughly between 1%-5%. Taking the lower number, that means 1/100 members of the general population have these tendencies. If you have interacted with the TSA, you know they certainly draw from the “general population”. So roughly speaking a child’s lifetime chance of being killed by terrorism is 1/80,000. Their chance of being viewed or touched by a TSA agent who is sexually aroused by children is 1/100 ON A GIVEN DAY OF FLYING.

Terrorism of any type is just not a very common event and yet the US spends massive amounts of money (that it doesn’t have!), and has systematically curtailed the civil rights of its own citizens and people around the world. And before you say “maybe the rate of terrorism is so low because of these efforts” keep in mind that there are few confirmed cases where terrorism was averted because of such measures. Usually it is failure on the part of the terrorists, or the heroics of civilians that avert a disaster. But that all really misses the big point, and this is the slight of hand that the US government counts on: terrorism in the first place is blowback (the unintended byproduct) from the US government’s foreign policy (I suggest reading Chalmers Johnson on this). Meaning the same government that is trying to “protect” you from it actually created the circumstances that have resulted in it. At least it used to be the “unintended byproduct” but now with the amount of profiteering on terrorism by the defense and security industries it is hard to believe that there aren’t at least some elements in the US government and arms industry who prefer that the threat of terrorism continues. In this case in particular, Michael Chertoff, Secretary of Homeland security until 2009 and a major proponent of body scanners since taking office in 2005, admitted that one of the Chertoff Group’s (his security company’s) clients is Rapiscan Systems who makes body scanners. So there is a direct profit motive for the government to introduce these systems.

Finally there is the health aspect: The scans do expose you to x-ray radiation and although the dose is relatively low, it is much higher than what you are exposed to in the natural environment over the same period of time. The science is still not fully understood on this, but there is indication that these machines are more dangerous than the manufacturers or the FDA claim (keep in mind the FDA is already in the pocket of big industry.) Even if we take a very conservative estimate that these machines expose you to the amount of radiation that you are exposed in the natural environment over an hour (as has been claimed) we can come up with the following calculation to put things in perspective:

There are about 800 million air passengers per year in the US. That would be 800 million body scans per year. Radiation exposure/scan = equivalent of that from 1 hr of life, so that’s 800 million hours. Average human life = 700,000 hours. So 800,000,000 hrs radiation = 1000+ lifetimes. Meaning that in a year these machines have given the population more than a 1000 lifetimes of extra radiation exposure. The lifetime death rate from skin cancer = 1/50 (the lifetime risk of dying from any sort of cancer is 1/7!). Thus making some reasonable statistical approximations, in 1000 human lives, 20 people will die from skin cancer. Therefor these machines cause on average 20 cancer deaths a year. (Yes there are some assumptions and approximations here but it is still a meaningful way to analyze the issue.) Keep in mind that the MARGINAL reduction in deaths by terrorism due to this technology would have to be substantially higher than the number of induced cancer deaths in order to justify its existence, given its other costs.

November 19, 2010 @ 8:18 am | Comment

Oh, this whole thing…have I complained about my experiences at SFO recently? The one place I’ve been subjected to “enhanced searches,” and those were infuriating enough before these new rules. The TSA, I met one really nice fellow the second time this happened to me but otherwise, I was so furious I was pretty sure a Taser was coming up. Standing in a freakin’ plastic box, nearly missing my flight (that was rebooked and left me no time to get to the airport early), no one coming to do the freakin’ search, I am standing in this box, and then when the “female officer” finally shows up, she is this hard-assed beyotch who made me feel like a criminal — “Stand with your feet on the footprints. Face that way. Raise your arms.”

You know what you need to do to get the extra attention at SFO? Wear baggy pants. Particularly those with cargo pants. The nice TSA officer explained it to me the second time it happened to me. Cause, you know, no one wants to wear loose, comfortable clothing when they are going to be flying for a long period of time.


And now this. It just gets more and more asinine.

November 19, 2010 @ 4:18 pm | Comment

There’s a certain section of the US that seems to almost luxuriate in the belief that the country is ‘under constant threat of attack’ by radical islamist forces. The ‘total war’mentality they want to encourage is that the whole country is now a new ‘front line’ against radical islam. All these airport security checks are just a spin off from that.

November 19, 2010 @ 8:01 pm | Comment

For the First time in my Life, I am not a proud American. The Fact that there is any American in my Freedom Loving Country, that would support this gross inustice on our Fourth Amendments rights is astonishing. If we dont’ quickly overturn this, I will never fly again, and I will leave this country, which was one for the free, but would be no longer.

November 19, 2010 @ 11:13 pm | Comment

NYC fights back against scanners.

November 20, 2010 @ 7:25 am | Comment

@MichaelIP –

“There’s a certain section of the US that seems to almost luxuriate in the belief that the country is ‘under constant threat of attack’ by radical Islamist forces. The ‘total war’ mentality they want to encourage is that the whole country is now a new ‘front line’ against radical Islam. All these airport security checks are just a spin off from that.”

“Do you want total war?”

November 20, 2010 @ 11:30 am | Comment

@MichaelP (#59) / @FOARP (#62)

“There is every reason to believe we will succeed in revolutionizing the Middle East, for we have always excelled at destroying tyrannies…. We wage total war, because we fight in the name of an idea — freedom — and ideas either triumph or fail.”

– Michael Ledeen, writing in a 2003 essay for the American Enterprise Institute.


“Most Americans have never heard of Michael Ledeen, but if the United States ends up in an extended shooting war throughout the Middle East, it will be largely due to his inspiration.”

“The man behind ‘total war’ in the Mideast” (May 14, 2003)

November 20, 2010 @ 10:14 pm | Comment

TSA = comic genius:


November 21, 2010 @ 2:36 am | Comment

A Republican congressman in Florida, John Mica, is calling for a ban of the TSA.


Should we cheer? Well, before doing that, read more closely….

“The push is being led by a powerful Florida congressman who’s a longtime critic of the Transportation Security Administration and counts among his campaign contributors some of the companies who might take the TSA’s place….

Mica is the ranking Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Once the new Congress convenes in January, the lawmaker is expected lead the committee.

Companies that could gain business if airports heed Mica’s call have helped fill his campaign coffers. In the past 13 years, Mica has received almost $81,000 in campaign donations from political action committees and executives connected to some of the private contractors already at 16 U.S. airports.”


So instead of being felt up by a government employee, I can be felt up by a private contractor instead. It might even be an ex-TSA employee, except now he’s got a lower salary and less health benefits. Very reassuring when he’s breathing on me while running his hands over my intimates.

I feel much better now.

As Richard rightly put it, just follow the money:

TSA spent over $100 m on advanced technologies in 2007-8.

U.S. airports security screening markets revenues estimated at $5.42 bn by 2012.

And Asia is just around the corner.

Slide 11: the biggest market driver is “terrorist threats”.

November 21, 2010 @ 7:32 pm | Comment

Nothing in modern history has generated such an insane spending spree like 911. A big fat wet dream for contractors of all kinds.

November 22, 2010 @ 1:55 am | Comment

And actually isn’t the TSA a semi-private organization? Because I remember there was a horrible fight about them being a Federal agency (with Federal benefits, and, you know, training and stuff).

But hey, here’s the upside:

Lonely this holiday season? Try your local airport!

November 22, 2010 @ 5:01 am | Comment

This is not a pleasent topic but must be discussed and be on every citizen’s mind, It is not TSA but Homeland security concent and depertmane has to be abolished. we lost the war to terorists the day we created HLS. Sorry.
We need to take the war to the source of all this. The Islam.
What better way than to park our troops in Mecca, Medina with Scanners and full body search of all Hajj pilgrims before the enter their beloved city?
This will get the message to all of Islam that we are bringing their war home to them.
As much as I love all religions and people, something irrational has to happen before we briing world peace.
Good luck to all with partial solutions.

November 23, 2010 @ 9:45 am | Comment


November 23, 2010 @ 10:49 am | Comment

Good grief. I think something irrational is in our midst.

November 23, 2010 @ 1:35 pm | Comment

One of Palin’s deranged relatives. Probably been chained up in the chook pen away from nosey reporters until this jailbreak.

November 24, 2010 @ 6:14 am | Comment

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