FLOTSAM & JETSAM: One never knows, do one?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

One never knows, do one?

Sam Smith

One of the things I enjoy about covering the news is being repeatedly surprised. Just when you think you've got it all figured out, something new happens.

The most recent example is the rebellion against the techno-authoritarianism being carried out by the TSA in its screening process.

For many years, I've sat on the board of the Fund for Constitutional Government - started by Stewart Mott and - from a townhouse just a few blocks for the Capitol - a source of endless annoyance to the establishment thanks to groups we help fund like the Government Accountability Project, the Project on Government Oversight, and the Electronic Information Privacy Center.

In 2005, EPIC issued a report in which it said:

"Recently, the Transportation Security Administration announced a proposal to purchase and deploy 'backscatter' X-ray machines to search air travelers at select airports. TSA said it believes that use of the machines is less invasive than pat-down searches. However, these machines, which show detailed images of a person's naked body, are equivalent to a 'virtual strip search' for all air travelers. This proposal, along with the agency's controversial plan to profile air travelers, shows extraordinary disregard for the privacy rights of air travelers."

Since then, EPIC has conducted a vigorous and often lonely battle against the excesses of TSA. It has been like many of the often lonely battles in which progressive groups find themselves: righteous and mostly ignored.

Then something happened. The TSA upped the ante. As the virtual strip search machines proliferated, it offered what it saw as an alternative: a physical search normally used only by police on suspects in which there is reasonable cause. We have all become suspects now because under today's rules any cause the government considers desirable is also considered reasonable. What more do you need to know?

It has been pretty clear since 9/11 that the people out there who wanted to destroy America were doing to a pretty good job. And they didn't even need planes and bombs anymore. Once they had scared the American establishment out of its wits, our own leaders began disassembling the place in the name of security.

It has been disturbingly revealing that since 9/11, neither the Bush nor the Obama administration has changed a single policy that would make it less likely that someone from the Muslim world would want to attack us. Instead, one hundred percent of our efforts have been directed at building moats and walls around the policies and approaches that caused the problem in the first place. It didn't work in the Middle Ages and it won't work now.

But that's all the back story. What's happened now is not a change in U.S. policy so much as a reaching into the lives of ordinary Ameicans in a particularly offensive way. And just in time for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

Suddenly, the issue has come home. In just the past few days, Reuters, CNN and the Washington Post have been forced to recognize it. People are mad and abused and the targeted industry - from pilots to tourist agencies - is worried and angry.

Who would have guessed that America might wake up to what was really happening thanks to people having their vaginas and testicles fondled by techno-autocrats?

I have long followed that the "holy shit" principle of journalism, which is to say that if I find something that is true and it makes me say, "holy shit" I figure that it is news worth sharing with others. The reaction to the misguided fingers of TSA more than fill the bill.

And there's a lesson here for activists: a good reason for doing what you're doing is because you can never be sure when it - or what part of it - is going to work. As Fats Waller used to say, "One never knows, do one?"