Keeping score on civil liberties

I stumbled upon a very disheartening piece written on WashingtonsBlog: a scorecard on the Bill of Rights v. the Government. Sadly, it appears that the Bill of Rights isn’t playing very well. In fact, one could say that at the moment, it looks like a rout. Continue reading Keeping score on civil liberties

Is VIPR worth the trouble?

Are the aggressive “security” actions of the Department of Homeland Security through its TSA and VIPR teams disproportionate to the existing threat?

I believe they are. Grossly disproportionate, as a matter of fact.

Let’s start with a brief analysis of the threat: There have been three known attempts to down an aircraft over the U.S. in the last ten years — via Richard Reid, the so-called “shoe bomber”; Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called “underwear bomber”; and via printer cartridges sent from Yemen in the cargo.

During that same time there were 106.8 billion passenger and cargo flights departing globally. Three divided by 106,800,000,000 equals . . . there are so many zeroes after the decimal point that the number, in practical terms, is meaningless.

Furthermore, there has been one known attempt at a non-airplane target in the U.S. within the last ten years (if you don’t include the Texas man who flew his plane into an IRS building as a “protest,” killing himself and two others) — the Times Square bomber. While there have been a handful of trumpeted “disrupted” plots, those all were tainted by FBI involvement bordering on entrapment and therefore cannot be considered viable threats.

There is no one statistic to put these facts in perspective. But consider the following:

• During the decade there were approximately 180,000 college and professional sports games (football, baseball, hockey, basketball). No terrorist attacks.

• There are approximately 102,200 shopping malls in the US. Over the past decade that would provide 373.2 million opportunities (at one per day) for mayhem. While there are many crimes at malls, there have been no terrorist attacks.

• In the last decade rail has transported over 5.4 billion passengers over nearly 6.8 billion miles.  There have been no terrorist attacks.

For these potential “soft targets,” risk is mathematically impossible to quantify because of the zero divisor in the equation.

With the billions upon billions of opportunities for attacks, the fact that none have happened leads a rational person to conclude that the risk is so small as to fall into a category that also includes dying from an alien attack, a meteorite collision, or the Mayan calendar end-of-the-world scenario.

So now let’s see what the government’s reaction to this level of threat has been. In the face of the risk as covered above, the DHS/TSA has responded with the following:

  • Electronic (and occasionally physical) strip-searching of large swaths of the air-traveling public, even though it has been reported that “current backscatter and millimeter wave scanners installed by the TSA are unable to screen adequately for security threats inside turbans, hijab, burqas, casts, prosthetics, and loose clothing.”
  • Physical pat-downs that in any setting except for arrest or conviction would be considered sexual assault. Causality in these cases is questionable at best. There is no research that supports the statement that a person’s need to have a medical assistive device, for example, is positively correlated to a predilection for violence.
  • Increased VIPR teams in response to . . . nothing.
  • Increased public relations campaigns that currently include messages that assault travelers in over a million domestic hotel rooms, at Wal-Mart and at NHL games. These are in response to . . . nothing.
  • Provision of millions of dollars to militarize local police departments and to provide anti-terrorist equipment. The latest example of this anti-terrorism equipment sounds like fantasy: 17 snow-cone machines, one of which was purchased for the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission, an agency responsible for managing and administering the homeland security program in Montcalm County, Michigan.
  • TSA screeners that over and over again disprove TSA Administrator John Pistole’s assertion that this group is composed of “professional and highly trained” personnel.
  • There were 54 criminal actions committed by 62 TSA employees reported in 2011. Those are only the ones that we know of. With a work force numbering 60,000, that correlates with a crime rate of 90 per 100,000. That statistic compares to an average rape statistic for 2009 of 41.7. While the overall crime rate of TSA workers is less than that of any reported city, I question whether we should be comfortable having anyone but the most honorable people searching bags or being able to see through our clothes or touch our bodies, including the most private parts.
  • The TSA continues to allow its employees to engage in questionable practices, such as confiscating a single iced cupcake, issuing orders contrary to stated TSA website instructions, disallowing free speech, and engaging in threatening behavior for people merely wishing to travel.

The above incidents, together with the over $1.1 trillion estimated as spent, make up the costs of these efforts at securing the country in terms of both personal inconvenience/assault and money. Those costs don’t include the $85 billion annually and the 900,000 jobs not offered due to the burden associated with current air-related security procedures.

In both economic and human terms, the U.S. response to 9/11 has been exceptionally expensive.

The risk of ideologically based violence — which is the way I have tried to discriminate between normal criminal activity and the emotionally charged term “terrorism” — in no way justifies the costs we have borne. That the DHS and TSA continue to increase their scope and footprint based upon the thinnest strand of risk defies reason.

We reached the law of diminishing returns years ago, with the advent of hardened cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers will no longer silently submit to an attack. Those two things alone have made us safer.

To indulge the DHS in more and more funding, for more and more exercises in domestic visibility for which we have no identified threat, is something we can scarcely afford – neither in terms of actual dollars nor in terms of our cultural fabric and principles.

Sporadic, unannounced, and unwarranted searches are a fixture of totalitarian regimes, not of a country that espouses liberty and justice. We have been using a single extraordinary event — an attack ten years ago — as a convenient excuse to broaden into a police state.

Such behavior circumvents the Constitution. It circumvents the civil liberties on which we have, at least in words, based our principles. And it has enabled the human rights violations that we have committed by invading other countries.

Have we had enough yet?

(Photo: Terry Freedman/Flickr)