November 29, 2010

Q&A with TSA Chairman John Pistole

Recently, I got to sit down with TSA Chairman John Pistole for a friendly interview. Here’s a transcript of the actual audio:

Me: Hi John. I hope that’s not too familiar – I feel like we should be on a first-name basis since you’ve touched my junk. Anyways, let’s get right to it. Before I ask any hard questions, I’d like to establish some facts we agree on:

So, we both agree that terrorists, in as much as they have a master plan, are not out to kill every single American. They are, in fact, just out to create fear in us: a persistent, nagging, every day fear that causes us to doubt everything we believe in, a fear that grinds at us until we’ve lost the joy of being Americans, and we’ll finally do anything to stop it.

Pistole: That might be a bit of a dramitic—

Me: So my first question is, should the TSA’s only priority be preventing any terrorist attacks, or should it pay more attention to what effect it is having on Americans’ morale?

Pistole: Well, we feel that flying is an exception to normal rules. What you have is essentially a giant flying bomb with people trapped aboard it, and as we saw in 9/11 this bomb can be used to devast—

Me: Right, planes are huge bombs – and, as Bruce Schneier pointed out in 2005, we immediately reinforced cabin doors after 9/11, so planes can’t be used that way by terrorists any more: there won’t be any more 9/11-style flying-planes-into-buildings attacks.

So, now the only significant thing about air travel is that it’s a bunch of people in a small space who can’t easily leave. Which is a lot like riding a bus, or being in a crowded coffee shop. So do you think Americans should surrender our constitutional rights in those situations, and, if not, what exactly makes air travel special?

Pistole: Wait, uh, what? You said this was going to be a friendly interview. What hap—

Me: Come to think of it, it’s also exactly like being in the TSA’s security line, which often have more people in them than the planes themselves. What exactly is going to prevent terrorists from just bringing bombs into lines with them? Before you answer, note that this isn’t hypothetical — terrorists around the world strike cafés and lines for exactly this reason.

Pistole: I don’t have to stand here and—

Me: That brings me nicely to my next point, which is that you’ve announced you’re going to sue Americans for $11,000 if they decide they have had enough and want to leave your theater of security at the airport. Now, this question is a two-parter: Do you think it’s somehow smarter to keep potential bombers in a crowded TSA line than in a parking lot, and do you think suicide bombers are afraid of getting fined $11,000 in addition to, like, committing suicide?

Pistole: You’re oversimplifying what is clearly a complicated—

Me: Oh, speaking of complicated, what about the color-coded security levels? Can you please tell us what specifically Americans should do at magenta level that we shouldn’t at mauve? Actual examples, please. Is there some level where we should not pay attention if some dude tries to light his underwear or shoes on fire?

Pistole: Ok, that was DHS, not the TSA, and they just announced they were getting rid of it–

Me: Wow, they're ditching color levels after only 10 years of having a policy with no visible effect except to confuse and scare Americans? I’m impressed with the… you said DHS? Too bad that’s not your organization. I was about to give you kudos.

Anyhow, that leads in nicely to my next question, which is, when the TSA decided we all needed to be “safer,” what process did it use to decide how to proceed? Did you study the world’s safest (and least safe) airports, and correlate that with the number of terrorist threats they face, and imitate their best practices? Did you look at Israel’s model, where they rely much more on talking to each passenger and watching for squirrelly responses — a model used by our own border service for a couple hundred years?

Or did you buy the most expensive gadgets you could find from a company that at least seven US representatives and two US senators own stock in?

Pistole: Look, we’re finding more terrorists are using powders and liquids in their bombs, and we need to–

Me: Isn’t all this talk about liquids and solids just a distraction from the fundamental issue, which is that every terrorist attack we’ve had since 9/11 was thwarted by vigilant Americans citizens, not the TSA, and all the TSA has done is introduce discomfort and delays into air travel?

Which brings me to this question: If you hired a security guard to watch your house, and 10 years later your neighbors said, “Hey, several times now dudes have tried to steal your shit, but we came over and stopped them each time after your security guy let them through,” would you continue to employ him? Especially if every time you tried to enter your house, he grabbed your nuts and took naked pictures of your wife?

Honestly, John, how do you still have a job?

Pistole: Look, we stop lots of attacks before they even—

Me: Except you don’t — you crow about it every time one of the passengers thwarts an attack as if you had something to do with it, and then you buy yourself some even more expensive equipment to make yourselves feel like real men, and make us do some new dance while we wait in the security line.

Which is my final question: by making us undress, forcing us to either be touched in inappropriate places or be viewed completely naked, exposing us to unknown amounts of radiation, and generally humiliating us, all the while claiming your agents are above the laws of the United States and somehow in charge of our police force as well, isn’t the TSA basically following the techniques of the history’s most repressive regimes? By telling us we can’t leave security once we started, that this is all for our own good, that we cannot be trusted, aren’t you robbing of us of the feeling that we control our own destiny? Aren’t you, in fact, creating a population that will not keep defending against terrorist attacks, because you’ve inculcated a learned helplessness in all of us?

I’m sure you’ve heard Benjamin Franklin’s quote a million times: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” But have you ever really listened to it? Because it seems almost unthinkably arrogant for you to tell us that after 200 years of living under the American constitution Ben helped write, you have a better way, which is to make us “safe” with fear and personal invasion. It seems like you are pissing on the graves of the millions of Americans who died defending our constitution in world wars and other struggles, who were willing to trade their lives for not their liberty but ours, for you to tell us that now we must give up our constitutional protections in order to be safe in our lives.

You, sir, work against the constitution of the United States, you work against the happiness and welfare of the American people, and I brand you a terrorist.

Pistole: Fair enough.

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