TSA outcry is really a call for profiling -- Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

Nov 23, 2010

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson discusses his recent columns and the latest news.

Read today's column: TSA outcry is really a call for profiling in which Gene writes: "It's hard to love the Transportation Security Administration, especially now that airport personnel seem so intent on touching people's junk. But the TSA's job isn't to be adorable, it's to be infallible - and, apparently, to suffer being unfairly maligned."

Hi, everyone. Welcome to our weekly discussion. No fixed agenda today -- the column is about the TSA and airport security, but we can also talk about politics, North Korea, the Palins... whatever happens to be on your mind. Let's get started.

You write: what is the alternative? You owe it to yourself and your readers (and listeners, since you're often on TV) to go to Israel and experience its security procedures for outbound passengers. No full-body scanners (showing the "junk," not touching it). But thoroughly-trained teams who screen/talk to passengers. My one trip there: I was a middle-aged white guy, who underwent an intensive, intelligent three minute Q&A session with two clearly professional, smart security people about my stay in the country. Yeah: that's the alternative. Come to think of it: it was the difference between being served in any "real" food establishment and a junk food chain./Larry Dietz/Santa Monica, Ca.

I've been to Israel, and there's no way U.S. travelers would stand for the security procedures at Ben Gurion Airport. If you think Americans are willing to undergo "an intensive, intelligent three-minute" interrogation every time they fly, then be my guest, give it a try. The "behavioral" security screening they do in Israel is on top of the regular metal-detector screening we've become accustomed to -- and, in my opinion, much more intrusive than any full-body scan. Want to have to explain to a stranger where you're coming from, where you're going and why? Want to have to justify your movements to the government? With Uzi-toting soldiers strolling through the concourse, as added ambiance? I understand perfectly why Israel does security that way -- big threat, only a couple of airports -- but we couldn't possibly.

I was in Israel last summer. EVERYONE is interviewed, most interviews are brief. There is also technology that screens for explosives without the porn photo effect, and there's nothing better than a dog's nose for sniffing out explosives. WHY aren't these options being considered?

Again, as you point out, everyone is interviewed in Israel. Why on earth would we want or need to subject every airline passenger to an interview? And then still put them and their carry-ons through the metal detector, and/or body scanner? It's true, however, that one option would be to use sniffer devices to detect traces of explosives. But they're no good for finding, say, big knives or box cutters.

Many people, myself included, will trigger "enhanced" pat downs every time we fly because we have a medical device implanted and visible to the new screening devices. People with chronic health issues or disabilities are very disproportionately impacted by this. A blog at the Wall Street Journal cites an audit of TSA that showed a serious lack of training at TSA. Shouldn't the security personnel be trained on identifying common medical devices, such as an insulin pump, and change their tactics accordingly?

Yes, absolutely, they should be trained to recognize common implants -- and the training should be updated as medical technology changes.

If we're not going to adapt the sensible strategy of profiling to decide who should receive extra scrutiny in airport lines, why not at least beef up the trusted traveler program? Let people who are willing to pay a fee every year or so, undergo a screening that will establish their bona fides as citizens or visitors unlikely to pose a threat. Let them move quickly through a metal detector, xray their hand luggage, and bye, bye.

As a frequent flyer, I'm fine with anything that could get me through the airport with less hassle. But I have to take issue with your contention that profiling would be a  "sensible" strategy. It wouldn't be. You'd still have to send everyone through a metal detector or a body scanner, right? Or would you just let people who didn't fit the profile walk right onto the plane unchecked? If you're going to check everyone anyhow, what would be the use of profiling? And if you're not going to check everyone, you'll be safe only until terrorrists send a bomber who doesn't fit the profile.

Mr. Robinson: I take great issue with the logic (or sloppy lack thereof) that underlies this argument: "Now, we could decide that treating air-traveling Americans like Guantanamo inmates is going too far...but we'd have to understand the consequences....the chance that somewhere, somehow, AQAP or some other terrorist group eventually downs an aircraft would greatly increase." Where is the logic underlying this argument? Nearly every news report on the recent attempts by AQAP to down US planes has indicated that these attacks have originated outside of the US, indicating that AQAP has been unable to place "sleeper" agents in any useful quantity within the country. The infamous underwear bomber and the printer cartridge bombs both originated outside US borders. The printer bombs were stopped well outside the US, while the underwear bomber's ability to enter the US could have and should have been prevented by intelligence and law enforcement using existing intelligence and without the aid of any body scanners (which, oh by the way, are known NOT to detect powdered explosives like what was sown into Mutallab's undies). So why would reducing the intrusive searches of US citizens travelling within the borders of our country via US airlines necessarily increase the risk of a successful attack within the US by AQAP or any other group?

Because terrorists are smart enough to seek the path of least resistance. It's fine to say that good intelligence should be all we need, and indeed it was intel that stopped the printer-cartridge bombs. But having pretty good intel in hand didn't stop Abdulmutallab (whose underwear bomb, by the way, quite likely would have been spotted by a body scanner). And the existence of people like the Times Square bomber, the Fort Hood shooter and the American who's now a honcho in the Yemen al-Qaeda branch tells me that maybe you're a little complacent about possible threats within our borders.

You're wrong on this one. I am a critic of the new screening, and I don't think TSA should profile people. I think we should accept the risk of terrorists blowing up the occasional airplane. The new screening procedure is too much like sexual assault. Think of what it would be like to fly if you were a 13 year old girl, a rape survivor, a religious conservative, or even just a painfully shy person. Should all these people have to be traumatized every time they fly, because the rest of us are afraid of being traumatized by the images of a blown up plane on the news? That is cowardly of us. And I don't think the minuscule risk of death on a plane is all that frightening; we except much higher risks of death every time we drive or even walk down a street.

I think yours is a consistent and principled position. I don't think most people agree, but your position does make sense. As I wrote, any individual's chance of being killed or injured in a terrorist attack would still be infinitesimal -- practically zero. You should acknowledge, however, that letting "the occasional airplane" be blown up would cause enormous economic and psychological damage.

What bothers me about this is what appears to be a lack of uniform training and what I can only call, unprofessionalism in the way some TSA employees do manual searches. I had occasion to travel from the UK to the US at a time when the IRA was threatening to bomb planes. The British did do manual searches of all passenger. They were done by trained police officers - a male and a female cop. Searches were done in public with men and women in two lines; if anything had been inappropriate it would have been seen. The cops were polite, their faces were impassive, and they told you what would happen before, for example, initimate areas were searched - and you could ask questions. The only time they broke into a smile was when they had to search children - it was done so kids would not be frightened. That wasn't fun but it was acceptable. Do you think that we can achieve that level of professionalism? And if so, how?

How did I get the role of TSA Defender? Oh well, somebody's got to do it. One reason why the TSA's procedures seem so random is that they vary them deliberately so there's no set pattern that can be discerned and gamed. But your point about professionalism is well taken. Most of the TSA employees I encounter are trying their best to do a difficult job. But maybe they should all be better-trained and better-paid. Or maybe some tasks, like searches, should be done only by police.

I would feel better if we followed Sutton's Law regarding profiling. You know, he was the bank robber who when asked why he robbed banks answered by saying, "because that's where the money is." I don't believe that the terrorists easily will find a non middle eastern looking person who is willing to commit suicide for the radical Muslim cause. In fact, only a small minority of Muslims themselves agree with the radical terrorists' mission. As the risk of terrorism increases and more such events occur we will emulate Israel I'm sure and profile. Most people are more interested in surviving than worrying about political correctness.

Again, your view is based on a wrong impression of what Israeli airport security is like. Yes, some people are singled out for extra scrutiny. But everyone, and I mean everyone, undergoes a baseline level of scrutiny more intrusive than anything we face at U.S. airports. At least that's what I've observed.

Mr. Robinson: I couldn't agree more with your column today. There IS no alternative at the moment to effective screening in whatever form it takes -- those who are bent on terrorizing us are simply too nimble and shadowy for us to take the unacceptable risk of us dropping our guard. What strikes me as most interesting about this "debate" (one in which nearly 80% of us think as you do -- but that's a position that's not getting all the attention), however, is that the minority yelling the loudest about "privacy" are the same ones who yell the loudest about how the government has to do a better job of protecting us from terrorism. It seems that they're saying "search that terrorist-looking guy over there, but don't search me!" Or, more likely "search everyone else, 'cuz they can't be trusted, but don't search me!" In your view, is this just another example of the hypocrisy that has recently been brought to us by the most radical fringes on the right and left, or is this REALLY where we've arrived as a country and society -- the notion that "I want what's mine (privacy, security, government largesse), but don't give anybody else that same treatment"?

I think it's the latter -- I'm special, I want what's mine, leave me the hell alone and do whatever you want with that suspicious-looking guy over there.

You don't seem to understand that people are outraged because the approach mandated to the TSA includes no common sense. Please explain how fondling children and the elderly makes air travel safer. Please explain why the airlines cannot conduct their own checks using Israel as a model.

Common sense should of course be employed, especially when it comes to children, senior citizens with artificial knees, etc. But come on. Are you telling me that people who think airport security is intrusive and obnoxious now are going to be happier if airlines start doing background checks on them? Snooping around their travel history, maybe even their employment and credit history? Are you telling me that people will stand for Israel-style interviews, or interrogations, at the airport? That system wouldn't last an hour in this country.

" If you think Americans are willing to undergo "an intensive, intelligent three-minute" interrogation every time they fly, then be my guest, give it a try. " Why not? I would rather do that then spend the same amount of time disrobing myself, removing my shoes and putting my possessions into plastic bins. An interview does not sound unreasonable to me. Customs officers do the same thing in foreign countries.

But you'd still have to go through at least a metal-detector line, which would mean putting your stuff in plastic bins, taking out your laptop, and, yes, taking off your shoes. The interviews at Ben Gurion Airport are on top of regular security screening, not a replacement.

I'm surprised that terrorist are seemingly only focused on blowing up planes, sometimes trains or buses. Aren't there many other places and things to blow up with less hassle and no security. What's stopping them?

That's an excellent question, and it kind of answers itself: Terrorists seek to incite feelings of terror. Plane crashes do that in a way that blowing up, say, a dam or a power plant really doesn't.

Isn't Palin getting far ahead of herself or perhaps delusional in talking about being able to beat President Obama in 2012? If she is serious about making a run for the nomination, shouldn't she first focus on determining if and how she can defeat the GOP's GOBs (i.e., Good Old Boys -- the likes of which include but are not limited to Barbour, Rove, McConnell, Boehner and Gingrich)? Unless she has made a deal to serve as a stalking-horse and mainly only wants to sell her book, I find it hard to believe these GOBs will allow Palin anywhere near the GOP 2012 Presidential nomination especially given GOP 2010 congressional, governorship and legislature wins.

I agree that the GOB's of the GOP will try their best not to let Palin anywhere near the nomination, but it's not clear just how they'll stop her. In the end, she might well stop herself -- I'm not at all sure that she really intends to run. But I think it's less unlikely now than it was, say, a couple of months ago.

Regarding profiling. Before 9/11, the deadliest terrorist in US history had brown hair, blue eyes and a Bronze Star. Since 9/11, the only person to fly a plane into a US building was a middle aged white man who played the electric bass. What profile did they fit?

Good questions.

I agree with your observation that the fuss about scanning and pat-downs is really about "Leave me alone. Just go after the terrorists." (my quotes). As far as I'm concerned, this is just one more symptom, in an ever increasing list of symptoms, of the accelerating decline of our society into whiny, adolescent selfishness. This is not to say that there is not still a host of responsible, considerate, engaged human beings out there. Unfortunately, it feels as if that number continues to shrink even as we speak. It's all too easy to see us texting our way into oblivion as our country falls apart. Thanks for letting me rant.

My pleasure.

"You'll be safe only until terrorists send a bomber who doesn't fit the profile" Amen Eugene. The US experience in Afghanistan and Iraq has shown that our 'enemies' will adapt. That's one of the few things we can predict about them. They'll recruit disaffected American teens, grandmas about to die of cancer, or wear something that makes them look like they're from the 'hood. This whole scandal has really puzzled me. Its a strange combination of civil liberties, limited government, and puritan modesty. I don't think I've agreed with you on anything in years, but I think you're (we're) right on this one.

Finally! I knew we'd get together on something sooner or later. It turns out, in fact, that we represent a clear majority of public opinion. Somewhere between two-thirds and four-fifths of Americans agree that this "scandal" isn't a scandal at all.


And with that, folks, my time is up for this week. I hope you all have safe travels, and that you all enjoy a happy Thanksgiving!

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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