It’s nice to see conservatives standing up for our freedoms

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Despite a painfully embarrassing incident at an airport scanner checkpoint, I’m still not totally on board with the sudden backlash against the new security procedures, which strikes me as oddly timed and perhaps disingenuous. But first let’s review the controversy. As CNN recently reported:

A growing pilot and passenger revolt over full-body scans and what many consider intrusive pat-downs couldn’t have come at a worse time for the nation’s air travel system. Thanksgiving, the busiest travel time of the year, is [Thursday]. Grassroots groups are urging travelers to either not fly or protest by opting out of the full-body scanners and undergo time-consuming pat-downs instead.

The holiday season is also the heart start of New Orleans’ tourist season. So if this national outrage leads to a drop in tourism, the city’s budget deficit will balloon. If that happens, we might find ourselves in a perverse situation where national outrage over intrusive federal body scanners leads our local leaders to call for more intrusive traffic camera “scanners” in order to make up the revenue shortfall… and to keep us safe, of course.

Don’t get me wrong. In the tug-of-war between freedom and security, I’m heartened to see any pulls on the freedom side. Since 9/11, Americans have consistently “erred” on the side of security. Worse, we’ve used easy rhetoric about “preserving freedom” to justify these overreaches. During the past decade, government has built a vast new surveillance society of Total Information Awareness. Corporations were happy to assist in this project because, after all, selling security in a time of fear is easy and profitable. Freedom, on the other hand, is harder to market. It’s more of an abstract, embedded benefit for everyone. So if the pendulum is swing back, it’s not a moment too soon. And New Orleans may actually benefit in the long run from the trend, since visitors come here to revel in the city’s freedoms. They don’t come here to feel safe.

In a column titled “Don’t Touch My Junk,” Charles Krauthammer describes the turning point, as passengers are resisting security pat downs on their private areas:

Don’t touch my junk is the anthem of the modern man, the Tea Party patriot, the late-life libertarian, the midterm election voter.

[This] marks the point at which a docile public declares that it will tolerate only so much idiocy. Metal detector? Back-of-the-hand pat? Okay. We will swallow hard and pretend airline attackers are randomly distributed in the population.

But now you insist on a full-body scan, a fairly accurate representation of my naked image to be viewed by a total stranger? Or alternatively, the full-body pat-down, which…. would be sexual assault if performed by anyone else?

This time you have gone too far, Big Bro’. The sleeping giant awakes. Take my shoes, remove my belt, waste my time and try my patience. But don’t touch my junk.

Suddenly privacy and 4th amendment protections are all the rage among “tea party patriots” and “midterm voters.” Better late than never, I suppose. This sublimely offensive post by the Rude Pundit welcomes the latecomers into the privacy club, and points out how belated this conservative stand for civil liberties is. After being surveilled, tracked, profiled, monitored and wiretapped in recent years, apparently this is the hill on which they’re making their stand for civil liberties (only weeks after cheering the defeat of the only Senator in the country who opposed the Patriot Act in 2001), because –  dammit – these folks just won’t stand being tread on.

So while government supercomputers continuously monitor and profile our digital “privates,” we’ve decided that brief airport scans on our actual privates is crossing the line. Track our communications and travels, and mince that data with top-secret algorithms; but please, whatever you do, don’t scan our gonads at the airport to check for hidden bombs.

Viva la revolucion! The contents of my underwear never felt so free!

Truly, I’m surprised that a year after an “underwear bomber” almost detonated himself over Michigan, plane passengers want to protest security checks for bombs… in underwear. It’s quite a contrast to the post-9/11 atmosphere in, say, November 2002, a mere 11 months after the “shoe bomber” failed to detonate himself. As Dave Weigel reminds us, the conservative civil liberties crowd were pretty quiet back then. They let the Bush administration and a GOP Congress take “ownership” of issues relating to the Transportation Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security. Spineless Democrats and complaisant Republicans – including then-GOP Majority leader (and current tea party darling) Dick Armey – framed their support for this “sprawling and invasive security apparatus” in terms of patriotism and being “tough” on terror.

It was a wonderful time full of simplistic slogans which were used to justify things such as preventive war and a national surveillance state. Freedom isn’t free. Remember the lessons of 9/11. You’re either with the terrorists or against them. Better fight ‘em over there than over here (if we want to put an End to Evil). Americans need to watch what they say and watch what they do. The only people who need to worry about government spying are those with something to hide. Don’t like it? Then you and your commie ACLU friends can go back to Afghanistan!

This airport scanner controversy would never have erupted eight years ago, during the modern apex of Republican power. No, the invasive government gropes would be rebranded as “freedom pats,” and if you opposed them you’d get simplistic talking points designed to shut down debate. Apparently, when a GOP president is waging wars of choice and building (completing?) a national surveillance state, libertarian critics like Rep. Ron Paul are written off as cranks. But a few years later when Democrats are in power (following GOP excesses), suddenly Ron Paul and his son are the face of a conservative political movement.

So it’s nice to know that when the going gets easy, conservatives pols will be there to fight tooth and nail for freedom. If it doesn’t require much of their skin in the game, they got your back.

Again, to the extent that it’s genuine, I applaud the resurgent conservative concern for civil liberties. But I wonder how much of it stems from the fertile, anti-Obama political climate, or perhaps from the “ick” factor of a stranger patting your privates? Or, maybe this sudden turn is less about “privacy” and more about the perceived inconveniences of political correctness. Perhaps what irks “midterm voters” most is the feeling that invasive measures should be reserved for the real threat – the swarthy Arab Muslim types, not the white Christian passengers. That’s my cynical suspicion. I think many conservatives wouldn’t object to being irradiated and groped at airport checkpoints so long as they saw enough Arab-looking passengers getting treated far worse – perhaps being escorted to a “special attention” room, where beefy security personnel probe their nooks and cavities.

Krauthammer goes on to say:

We pretend that we go through this nonsense as a small price paid to ensure the safety of air travel. Rubbish. This has nothing to do with safety – 95 percent of these inspections, searches, shoe removals and pat-downs are ridiculously unnecessary. The only reason we continue to do this is that people are too cowed to even question the absurd taboo against profiling – when the profile of the airline attacker is narrow, concrete, uniquely definable and universally known.

Krauthammer doesn’t elaborate on this “universally known” profile. Helpfully, Scott McKay of The Hayride blog expands on Krauthammer’s point, and adds a few others:

The junk-grabbing and nudie pictures are one thing. The refusal to focus on the people who represent the real threat to air travel are another.

The best airport security is done by the Israelis, who don’t waste their time scanning grandmothers and four-year olds for weapons but instead intensively profile would-be terrorists based on identity and behavior. They ask questions about destinations and plans, they look for people who appear to have something up their sleeve and they do a good job knowing exactly who’s getting on their planes. And it has been a long time since anyone has successfully hit an Israeli plane.

Political correctness prevents us from acting in the same intelligent manner. Instead we have to treat every passenger the same, and Christians and Jews and Hindus and Buddhists have to be insulted by suffering the same level of suspicion as those belonging to a demographic from which all of the danger comes.

Recently Florida Sen. George LeMieux said we should look into profiling based on the Israeli model. The basic idea here is that Americans would be safer if they didn’t have their hang-ups about racism and minorities. But it’s not that simple.

Even if we could transplant Israel’s system into the hundreds of U.S. airports, it wouldn’t be some politically incorrect paradise where only the “suspicious” types are inconvenienced. For example, the Israeli system begins outside the airport where you stop at a roadside checkpoints. At the door, you pass armed guards, and then before you check-in everyone gets an interview – even the grandmas, even the white Christian types. Airport security asks passengers questions that are designed to expose nervousness and deceit. It’s a brain scan, of sorts, designed to uncover red flags, and these interviews are deemed to be the “most crucial component of the Israeli system.” The results of these interviews form the basis for further behavioral profiling, interviews, X-rays and searches.

So if we really want to scrap the “security theater” we currently endure and adopt Israel’s system, we should be prepared for more checkpoints and longer lines, and a penetrating interview by a government agent who is trained to probe your mind.  I don’t think the “don’t touch my junk” crowd is going to like being grilled by a nosy stranger, who doesn’t accept “none of your business” as an answer.

It’s far more likely that Israeli security methods would only be partially incorporated into our Western processes. But to an extent, that has already taken place. For example, an Israeli-owned security firm called ICTS already provides security at many international airports. In fact, the “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab got past ICTS security systems in Amsterdam. (Conspiracy theorists have made much of reports claiming “shoe bomber” Richard Reid also got past ICTS security in Paris, but it was actually Parisian Police who allowed Reid to get on the plane. Also, the details of the underwear bomber episode are so weird, I can’t discount the possibility that an intelligence service allowed Abdulmutallab to go through security in order to track him and perhaps break up a larger terrorist ring.)

The point is, preventing terrorism while maintaining freedom is not simply a matter of “profiling like they do in Israel.” It’s not merely about “getting less P.C.” and inconveniencing the “suspicious” people. Americans wouldn’t tolerate the Israeli system. And even Israeli-Western hybrid systems are not foolproof. Further, the terrorist profile continues to widen. The 9/11 bombers were Arabs, but the shoe bomber and underwear bomber were not. Obviously, religion is a common denominator, but how do you profile based on that (as Krauthammer and MacKay seem to suggest)?  And ethnic-profiling of swarthy Middle Eastern types would be no easier, even beyond the political incorrectness. After all most Arab-Americans are Christian, and most Muslims (worldwide) are Asian.

I think it’s very dangerous to believe that terrorists are too stupid to circumvent narrow security profiles. I mean, my gracious, just this summer some conservatives were warning us about the specter of terrorists sending pregnant women to the U.S. to bear and raise “terror babies” who would grow up to become suicide bombers. So, apparently terrorists can formulate and implement a 20-year plan for a terrorist baby infiltrator, but they’re not smart enough to lie about their religion, or Westernize their appearance, or recruit people outside “uniquely definable” profiles?

This year Colleen LaRose, aka “Jihad Jane,” was arrested in an Islamo-terrorist assassination conspiracy with alleged accomplice Jamie Paulin-Ramirez. LaRose and Ramirez are both blonde-haired blue eyed American women who were committed to killing an “infidel.” Ramirez claimed she would strap on a bomb to blow something up. How, pray tell, do they fit into Krauthammer’s narrow profile?

And shouldn’t we try to get ahead of the curve, instead of always being reactive? Why should we use profiles suited to the threats of the 2000’s, rather than look ahead to the emerging threats of the 2010’s?

Take the eco-terrorist menace, for example. After the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, conservative opinionmaker Rush Limbaugh implied environmentalists might’ve been responsible.  If that’s possible – and plenty of people entertained the idea! – then eco-terrorists would do anything. Surely, as their grand climate change hoax continues to unravel, ecoterrorists will become more and more desperate, and perhaps they’ll begin to target fossil-fuel burning jets. Why doesn’t Krauthammer want to protect us from this emerging threat?

This year we also had the apocalyptic “Hutaree” Christian militia that allegedly planned to slaughter police officers at a funeral. The Hutaree claim they wanted to be “everywhere,” which presumably includes airports. Shouldn’t we take their threat seriously?

As usual, stupid little catchphrases – so easy to memorize and repeat – are no help.  Despite the publicized arrests of the Hutaree milita, there was an increase in use of the “every terrorist is a Muslim” canard this summer, especially during the absurd Ground Zero Mosque controversy. Fox News anchor Brian Kilmeade recently had to apologize for saying, “Not every Muslim is… a terrorist, but every terrorist is a Muslim.” And you can bet that little bon mot wasn’t his own creation. It’s been a growing meme for years, often heard on talk radio. Most recently, I heard it from a caller on Kaare Johnson’s radio show on WIST 690 AM. Thankfully, Johnson, promptly shot it down.

Fighting terrorism is more complicated than simplistic catchphrases and anti-P.C. fantasies. This Time article on the Fort Dix terrorism plot offers some lessons about the complexity involved. The case was prosecuted by then U.S. Attorney Chris Christie, who is now governor of New Jersey.  (I praised Christie for his perspective during the Ground Zero mosque hubbub.)

In May, when U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie announced their arrests on the steps of the courthouse in Camden, N.J., he called the Fort Dix case “the model for the post–September 11 era.” He meant that as a compliment. Eight different law-enforcement outfits had cooperated, all following up on the tip of a concerned citizen. Six suspects were in jail, five charged with conspiring to kill soldiers at the Fort Dix military base in southern New Jersey and the sixth facing weapons charges. No one had gotten hurt. “This,” said Christie, “is what we’ve been talking about developing since [9/11].”

A TIME investigation of the Fort Dix case shows that it is indeed an important prototype. Six years after 9/11, the U.S. government has begun to settle on a strategy for finding and stopping potential homegrown terrorists before they strike. Fort Dix offers a case study of this new and sometimes precarious method. The model is called pre-emptive prosecution, and like other pre-emptive strikes of late, it is risky. It means relying on often unreliable informants to infiltrate insular communities, and it means making arrests before anything close to a terrorist attack actually happens. The process sometimes ends with a trial but not necessarily a conviction, and that may be beside the point. It is, in all, a messy and unsatisfying ordeal, and possibly the best available option.

Messy, unsatisfying… but possibly the best available option. Sort of sounds like democratic republicanism.

Three of the Fort Dix plotters were Albanian. Reid was British, Amudullab was African. Do you want to bet that the next terrorist attempt will be someone inside or outside the likely “profile”? And if the profile conservatives have in mind basically boils down to “looks Muslim,” then that’s hardly narrow enough to do much good. We’d like to think the terrorist profile is concrete and that vigorous ethno-religious profiling would be simple and highly effective. But it’s not.

Instead of using easy catchphrases to justify ethno-religious profiling, perhaps we’d do better to revisit our assumptions about what helps Islamist terrorists find more suicidal recruits. A free society will never be a fail-safe society. But perhaps becoming more free, rather than less – that is, upholding our democratic values even when it’s uncomfortable to do so – is the winning long-term strategy against terrorism.

The good news is that the underwear bomber was actually a sign that Al Qaeda’s ability to enact large-scale, well-planned, simultaneous attacks has diminished. They’re recruiting ne’er-do-wells on lone missions that have often failed.

So if the current TSA kerfuffle is merely a backlash against political correctness, I’m unimpressed. If it’s about maintaining American values even during difficult times, then I’m all for it. Terrorism sucks, but so does living on your knees in a security state.

As we figure out which direction we’re going to go in the current security-privacy debate, I want to conclude by offering a thought that might lessen some traveler’s frustrations, as well as help a cash-strapped city such New Orleans.

Perhaps we can capitalize on New Orleans’ degenerate reputation and Louis Armstrong International airport could offer an enhanced “VIP checkpoint lounge.” There, for an additional fee, specially-trained and highly-equipped TSA lap dancers could thoroughly check passengers’ underwear regions. Naturally, there would be overpriced drinks and blaring strip club music. And if business-class patrons demanded repeated lap pat downs, purely in the interest of safety, who could object to that?

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