Sunday, January 10, 2010

Canary in a Coal Mine, or Any Excuse to Cry Foul?

[A response to Airport Security: Trading Liberty for the Illusion of Safety by Rob Evans, Jan. 09, 2010.]

Your Michael Jordan introduction is clever, but it feels like you came up with it first and then looked for an argument to shoehorn it into. You say that North American governments are playing a "similar game" but make no attempt to identify the similarity. Are you the terrorists? Is Michael Jordan the government? So, the government wins if terrorists quit making attempts to blow stuff up and the terrorists win whenever they succeed once? Or is it that the terrorists win if the government stops trying to stop them, and the government wins if they stop even one? What are you even advocating with this paragraph? That governments stop trying to weed out terrorists?

"The gun is visible enough, but what of the white stuff around the body? Is that just thick underwear or a plastic explosive? The gun would have been detected by conventional screening anyway, so what we're gaining here is a big fat nothing."
Your conclusion does not follow from the premise. The gun would be found through less intrusive means. Fine. So we should stop when we find the gun? And if somebody has a plastic explosive, they get a pass because it rather resembles thick torso-underwear to someone with no training on such a system (ie. you)? How is this "a big fat nothing"? The image quite clearly shows a lot more than just a gun, and you seem to be pretending there's nothing else there because it serves your argument to do so.

You've provided no support for the statement that "subjecting millions of our own travelers to these machines does not make us safer". Obviously it is difficult to prove a negative, but it seems fairly evident to me that full body imaging cannot fail to be more effective than mere metal detectors and random pat-downs.

"We have been losing bits of liberty, step by step, each time a terrorist attempts to attack a plane." Maybe so. But what precisely are you advocating with this paragraph? That we blithely assume that once a terrorist tries one method, they will move on? That once a weakness has been exploited, we should ignore it instead of addressing the risk? Fool me once, as they say, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Certainly it is better to be proactive, but there's no reason not to be reactive as well. Terrorists don't win when they put some people through some minor inconvenience on their way to enjoy the miracle of flight, they win when they blow up those flights.

"Anal cavity searches are coming"? Doubtful. There's no actual violation of the physical person here. It's an image, not a probe. You must realize that slippery-slope arguments are logical fallacies, unless you also believe that gay marriage leads to bestiality and polygamy. Rhetoric about being bent over is merely colourful.

Statistics. Generally inadmissible in the courtroom, as dear Prof. Maveal taught us, and just as useless here. Planes versus cars is apples versus oranges. The difference in the numbers is a reflection of a number of factors, none of which support the argument that we should stop looking for terrorists in airports. If anything, you're now arguing that we should be sacrificing a little more liberty to have our cars crash less often.

We control our cars. We use them all the goddamn time. We use them individually, and when we crash, it is the fault of an individual, not an ideology. In such instances the government can not be said to have failed to protect us. Regardless, governments expend a great deal of money and effort trying to curb crashes. That they occur anyway is not to suggest that we should fear them more than attacks by terrorists, but rather that we should drive carefully.

We don't control planes, and we generally don't use them all that often. They are piloted by strangers, and indeed are a pseudo-governmental service, when you consider their subsidization. When a plane crashes, it may be nothing more than pilot error or mechanical malfunction. These things happen very rarely, as a result of the massive regulatory systems in place governing flights. But, when a terrorist hijacks or blows up a plane, the government has failed to protect us. For this reason, we sacrifice some of our convenience (I won't say liberty here, 'cause I don't define the word so callously as to assume it means "ten extra minutes waiting in a line" or "a picture of me naked, but as an alien"). We cannot "afford to lose a few more planes," because it means a very different thing. A plane crash is a victory for an ideology which sees it as acceptable to blow up a couple hundred innocents for no reason. A car crash means nothing to anyone besides those involved. In short, we have security checkpoints in airports because they are targets. You know this, of course, so the inclusion of the statistics does nothing but obscure the liberty issue.

Afghanistan and Iraq. About security? Partly, I suppose, but that is a gross oversimplification. But I'm not about to start defending those particular endeavours.

I'm not afraid of heights, and I'm not afraid of flying. I love flying, actually. But I have no desire to see anyone blown up just because the government ignored viable security techniques that imposed a minimal inconvenience. Hell, done right it seems like full body scans could actually speed things up. I mean, "done right" is probably a prohibitively big stretch for airlines and governments, but I can dream.

To conclude, terror is not a choice, it is an imposition. And you cannot confuse liberty with convenience. Liberty can never be overvalued, while convenience is not worth the sacrifice of even one life.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

very good analysis!