February 25, 2017 by lonbud
A Bridge Too Far
Among the heinous stains left in the fabric of American society by the country’s 43rd President, perhaps the most conclusive of Osama bin Laden’s victory in his war against the West, assuredly the most repulsive and annoying to me personally, is the Department of Homeland Security and its Transportation Security Administration.
Before 9/11, the screening of baggage and passengers bound for air travel in the United States was a joint responsibility of the airlines themselves and the airport authority at any particular location. Then, on a sunny September morning in 2001, a coordinated band of terrorists hailing from the Middle East hijacked four planes departing from three airports, forever changing the country’s calculus of liberty and security.
Given the remove of more than a decade and a half since that surreal day, it is difficult to recall precisely how invasive or troublesome the act of getting on an airplane used to be. My own recollection of being able to easily make a flight anywhere in the country by arriving at the front doors of the airport 20-25 minutes before the scheduled departure time – along with more distant memories of Hertz Rent-a-Car commercials featuring one-time Golden Boy O.J. Simpson sprinting through terminals – suggests it was nothing like today’s exercise: show up an hour or more before flight time to be herded like cattle in stockyards, vetted for government-issued picture identification, x-rayed and body-scanned, sometimes physically patted-down (even groped), de-belted, de-shoed, and in some cases forced to strip to one’s last layer of clothing above her underwear. Carry-on belongings are individually scrutinized by x-ray and often enough opened and rummaged through by latex-gloved inspectors, who confiscate personal grooming implements and any liquid-based item containing more than 3oz of matter. Sometimes, passengers are detained for further questioning and bio-swabbed for god knows what potential microbial threat might be on the system’s radar.
Ahh, but freedom ain’t free, is it?
Nearly three thousand Americans died horrible deaths on 9/11; we must never forget; it must never happen again. Yes on all counts, though a debate may be had as to the wisdom of the choices made to achieve those laudable ends. For a President and a party in power elected on avowed promises to deliver Americans a government so small it could be drowned in a bathtub, the erection of a new federal bureaucracy the size and scope of DHS/TSA to combat the threat of terrorism would seem counterintuitive at best.
Our World in Data has a fascinating and informative compilation of information and perspective on terrorism, from both historical and 9/11-informed views, which suggests, to my reading, we may have over-played the security card – at the expense of the liberty so many patriotic Americans claim to hold so dear.
The Fiscal Year 2016 budget for DHS was nearly $65Billion. TSA cost American taxpayers over $7Billion from that pie. If we calculate the annual cost to save the most American lives ever lost to air terrorism, which turns out to have been in 2001, we spend over $2.33Million per life every year on the TSA. If we calculate the cost to save the average number of American lives lost annually to all kinds of terrorism between 1968 and 2009 (even including 2001, which wildly skews the results), the TSA tab alone is $88.6Million per life.
Reasonable people may disagree but it seems abundantly clear to me: 15+ years of experience and data show the TSA simply does not do what it was formed to do (prevent terrorism), which raises the question: why are freedom-loving Libertarians and Tea Partiers, conservative budget hawks, and Republican small-government zealots not clamoring for an assessment of its usefulness?
As bad and confounding as all that may be, because the 45th President of the United States has, to put it kindly, surrounded himself with close advisors and cabinet members with alternately racist, white-nationalist, reactionary, bellicose, and xenophobic leanings, we now have bigger problems than just an annoying and bloated security bureaucracy to worry about.
On Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017, passengers navigated the TSA screening process (which includes cross-referencing every picture ID with every boarding pass and every piece of checked luggage with every passenger who actually gets on the plane) to board Delta Airlines Flight 1583 in San Francisco, bound non-stop for New York’s JFK airport. Upon landing in New York, flight attendants informed passengers, “you will need to show your papers to agents waiting outside the door” of the aircraft, on the jetbridge, in order to disembark the plane. The agents were officers of Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) who were allegedly assisting US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials searching for a fugitive pursuant to the Immigration and Nationality Act.
There is so much wrong and alarming, so much disgusting and upsetting about this my fingers are literally quivering at the keyboard as I type. To begin with, the CBP’s statutory search authority is found in 19 C.F.R. 162.6, which states,”All persons, baggage and merchandise arriving in the Customs territory of the United States from places outside thereof are liable to inspection by a CBP officer.” CBP’s annotation of its authority adds,”CBP has the authority to collect passenger name record information on all travelers entering or leaving the United States.” (Emphasis added.) Delta 1583 was a domestic flight, so CBP clearly had no business demanding papers from anyone on that plane when it arrived in New York.
On Friday a CBP spokesperson insisted the ID check on the jetbridge was “consensual assistance from passengers aboard the flight” and that “CBP did not compel” anyone to show ID. Which, of course, is more likely than not untrue. Or, in the parlance of the current administration, an “alternative fact.”
An actual fact is that TSA knew exactly who was on that plane when it left San Francisco. If ICE’s fugitive had been a passenger, TSA could have told them what seat he or she was sitting in. ICE agents could have boarded the plane when it landed at JFK and removed the fugitive prior to anyone else’s getting off and this would have been just another case of the wrong person being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The fugitive, unsurprisingly, was not aboard the flight.
President 45 may or may not be leading the country on a path that will soon resemble 1940s Germany but it is clear as a fucking bell he and his administration are working overtime to delegitimize and undermine the functionality of a free press, acting to strike fear in the hearts of immigrants and non-white citizens specifically, and now have begun testing the waters for intimidation of the general population. By any measure, that is fucked up.