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Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 11/23/2010

Can Rapiscan save air travel?

By Ezra Klein

scanning.jpg

Kevin Drum has an anti-anti-TSA rant, of which I think this is the most persuasive paragraph:

Maybe you think that even if TSA's procedures are slightly useful, they aren't useful enough to justify all the intrusion. Instead, we should just accept the risk of an occasional plane falling out of the sky. Think again: if a plane comes down, you can just kiss your civil liberties goodbye. Today's TSA procedures will seem positively genial compared to what takes their place with the full and eager support of the American public. Given that reality, if you're really worried about civil liberties you should welcome nearly anything legal that protects air travel from explosives, even the things that are really annoying and only modestly useful.

There's really something to this, and it's why, with apologies to Homer Simpson, Rapiscan might be the cause of, and solution to, all of air travel's problems.

The bureaucratic incentives of airport security all point in one direction: toward more of it. You can't be the director of homeland security who decreed that passengers could keep their sneakers on and then watched a terrorist finally get a shoe bomb to work at 33,000 feet. You can't be the director of homeland security who knows that three terrorists tried to mix a liquid explosive on a flight and then did nothing to stop them from trying it again. It's bad to be blamed for annoyances. It's much worse to be blamed for deaths. And the voters can't credibly promise to hold the security state blameless for an actual terrorist attack. So the security state, and the people who run it, won't take the chance.

The answer to this? Rapiscan, maybe. Annie Lowrey* visited their headquarters the other day, and their basic message was that this is still the paleolithic period for security scanning. As the technology gets better, so will air travel. The company is working on shoe scanners that will let you keep your shoes on, that can detect whether your liquids are benign, and that allow for constant flow rather than the stop-and-start rhythm of current units. This won't make the security state less invasive, of course. But it might make it less of a hassle. And this will depress my civil libertarian friends, but I think it's the hassle that people are really objecting to here.

Photo credit: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP.

By Ezra Klein  | November 23, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
 
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Comments

" The company is working on shoe scanners that will let you keep your shoes on, that can detect whether your liquids are benign, and that allow for constant flow rather than the stop-and-start rhythm of current units. This won't make the security state less invasive, of course. But it might make it less of a hassle"

my grandmother was a young girl, in 1910.
i wonder what she and my great~grandmother, would have thought if they read this!
when i think of shoescanners, i remember when i was little, children's shoe stores used to have "fluoroscope" machines, that you could hop onto, and for a penny, they would take a picture of the bones in your feet! we thought it was like magic!
we marveled at science and "modern" inventions. we just assumed that science would improve our society, and find an answer for everything, and i dont think we ever thought very much about whether it would be safe.
whether the fluoroscope machines were x-ray toys...or whether medications would be pulled off the market, because they were unsafe, or that our shiny coats of paint had lead in it...or that the pesticides that were used would hurt us.
we were told that "everything was fine," and all of these things were going to make our world a better place.

no real judgements on things.
just quizzical remembrances on the road to here.

Posted by: jkaren | November 23, 2010 9:30 AM | Report abuse

do yourself a favor....
take the train.

Posted by: jkaren | November 23, 2010 9:33 AM | Report abuse

Wow that's a stupid argument. So we need to have scanners that do nothing to protect us because otherwise when something happens it will be worse! But of course those scanners can't protect us so something will eventually happen anyway.

Posted by: endaround | November 23, 2010 9:44 AM | Report abuse

when you work around children, and you give them something to touch or taste, that makes them feel uncomfortable or strange, they often say, "this feels yucky. this is icky."
well, that is how all of this stuff makes me feel. it gives me the creeps. it makes me feel like you have been zapped with rays, and you would want to run out of airport and to the closest ocean and clean your body and spirit off, in the saltwater. reconnect somehow.
all of it, somehow feels spiritually and physically yucky and icky.

Posted by: jkaren | November 23, 2010 9:44 AM | Report abuse

>>You can't be the director of homeland security who decreed that passengers could keep their sneakers on and then watched a terrorist finally get a shoe bomb to work at 33,000 feet>>

If the sneaker brought down a plane, you're not going to know it was a shoe bomb. The reason the shoe and underwear bombers were successful is because their devices didn't go off, resulting in massive increases in security theater with no real increase in security.

If our goal is total security, whatever the cost
- why didn't they start groping immediately after the underwear bomber
- why no body cavity searches
- why allow any luggage, checked or carryon

Posted by: fuse | November 23, 2010 9:45 AM | Report abuse

This TSA controversy (scanners to keep travelers' safe/and or pat downs) is a smoke screen and getting blown wayout of porportion so that people can't think and reflect on the real culprit -- tax cuts for the rich, which would really adversely affect most of us, unless you make a million dollars a year! Where was the GOP/media outrage at illegal wiretapping, and library intrusion into our privacy? Mum!

When will the Dems act like grownups and be responsible and let these irresponsible tax cuts for the rich Expire. Everyone knows that these tax cuts add to the deficit and take from the poor and middleclass, reverse Robin Hood effect! However, with the expiration of these tax cuts, more revenue will be generated into the economy, and the rich and wealthy will begin to pay their fairshare and not leave the tax burden to the middle class and working poor.

For a so-called enlightened country like the U.S. to have such a discriminating ban on gays is disgraceful. As a country we are bigger than that, and better than that -- or should be. What made America great was her openess and compassion for others, with the advent of the Rush Limbaughs, we lost a lot of that generosity of spirit. We have to get it back! America must take the lead as we always have in the past and show the world we do not discriminate against any human being.

Posted by: wdsoulplane | November 23, 2010 9:50 AM | Report abuse

Sorry, but your asterisk link is, I believe, out of date?

Posted by: bharshaw | November 23, 2010 10:32 AM | Report abuse

bharshaw, technically it's still true. They are unmarried domestic partners, but will soon(ishly) be married domestic partners.

re: screening: I'm torn. On the one hand, I see the convenience and the unease with the scanners. On the other, the technocrat in me thinks that within five years we'll have scanners that will make these things look crude by comparison. Maybe we'll be able to scan like in Total Recall, which showed the person's skeleton and any contraband they had on their person.

Posted by: MosBen | November 23, 2010 10:45 AM | Report abuse

"And this will depress my civil libertarian friends, but I think it's the hassle that people are really objecting to here."

I guess you haven't been reading your comments or those on Drum's blog. I personally object to both the radiation and the intrusive grope. Plus, I don't feel any safer, and I don't see any evidence that these infuriating procedures make us safer.

And then there's the 4th Amendment to the Constitution.

Posted by: AuthorEditor | November 23, 2010 10:50 AM | Report abuse

"You can't be the director of homeland security who knows that three terrorists tried to mix a liquid explosive on a flight and then did nothing to stop them from trying it again."
.
Except that what stops a group of 5-6 people from each bringing on 3 oz of fluid and then combining them in the connecting airport bathroom?
.
You know what will prevent another 9/11? The reinforced cockpit doors. That and Flight 93's "lets roll".
.
They terrorists have broken previous unspoken agreement with passengers that if you cooperated with terrorists, you'd get out alive. With that gone, trust me, the passengers will literally rip them to pieces. Is it possible for someone to blow up an aircraft in a manner that prevents intervention by passengers and air marshals, but that also will likely cause significantly *less* damage than that same person blowing themselves up waiting in line at the airport on a busy day. We don't check people walking into the airport yet do we?.
.
Next time someone uses 9/11 to justify these procedures, remember, 9/11 simply isn't going to happen again due to increased passenger vigilance and those reinforced cockpit doors. Stopping a bomb on the plane just isn't any different than stopping it waiting in line. And we aren't doing *anything* to stop the line bombs. So why are we doing it for flying aircraft again?

Posted by: rpixley220 | November 23, 2010 11:15 AM | Report abuse

Is there a credible report on Rapiscan's effectiveness at terrorist prevention? It seems it would be difficult to statistically isolate the effects of this single variable - plus, is there even enough time-series data? What about radiation? I assume long term effects would be impossible to measure.

Ezra's explanation of why airports are using scanners (the folks at Homeland Security are simply doing their jobs) is spot on and a no-brainer. If passengers want this practice stopped then they need to keep politicizing the issue so Congress will pass a law. Nevertheless, I'd imagine it would be difficult for POTUS to sign a bill superseding Homeland Security's judgment.

Posted by: ChrisFH | November 23, 2010 11:51 AM | Report abuse

To fly to any destination on your prefer timing, prefer a private jet charter. Which also allows you to travel safer and quicker too.
http://www.247jet.com/

Posted by: privatejet | November 23, 2010 12:27 PM | Report abuse

First time commenter (IIRC).....I wouldn't be a regular Klein reader since the early TAP days if I didn't often find your posts illuminating, but this is just terrible.

The fact that bureaucratic incentives push toward ever-tightening security is a reason to be more vigilant for liberty and fight harder against authoritarian encroachment, not accept it.

Personally I hate the hassle of the enhanced screening. But I would tolerate it if I felt it was actually mostly about making travel safer. Instead, as you tacitly admit, it's more about CYA for politicians and bureaucrats who want to be able to say, when the next plan *inevitably* comes down, "Hey, we did all we could." With side helpings of profiteering for well-connected companies providing all this expensive hardware.

Taking oiff our shoes at the gate made sense as a stopgap measure right after the Reid attempt, until a less cumbersome solution could be found. Which was...how many years ago? Why don't they have dogs - which from what I've read are better at finding explosives than any of the technological solutions yet implemented, or readily foreseeable - sniffing our shoes? I suspect it's because nobody thought to patent the dog. If a well connected corporation could figure out a way to obtain a dog monopoly, I expect we'd see them at airports instead of scanners.

And "hassle" translates directly to reduced air travel, which is a further drag on the economy and leads to more people dying on the roads. So yes, in addition to the needless sacrifice of human dignity to the state I am opposed to the "hassle."

Posted by: sfjaykey | November 23, 2010 1:19 PM | Report abuse

"And then there's the 4th Amendment to the Constitution."

But, but, AuthorEditor...Amendments aren't in the ORIGINAL Constitution...

/snark

the scanners are gross, intrusive, and I don't want strangers seeing my naked body OR pawing my clothed one. What about when a woman happens to be travelling during her time of the month?

I can't watch Hallowe'en because of an incident with knives. I can't IMAGINE what it's like for cancer or sexual assault survivors.

Plus, where's the ADA lawsuit? Medical devices = enhanced pat-down. 100% of the time, from what I've heard.

Posted by: ajw_93 | November 23, 2010 1:20 PM | Report abuse

@jkaren: "when you work around children, and you give them something to touch or taste, that makes them feel uncomfortable or strange, they often say, "this feels yucky. this is icky."
well, that is how all of this stuff makes me feel."

-------

Devil's advocate: My daughter also says that about brussels sprouts.

Posted by: dpurp | November 23, 2010 1:48 PM | Report abuse

Exactly. And when a terrorist manages to get past the security at a crowded movie theatre and blow themselves up, or at a mall during the holiday shopping season, or at a place of work, we'll all be happy to submit to metal detectors, naked scanners, grope-downs, and anal searches anywhere 100 or more people gather. Because the right to gather peacefully just won't be worth the security risk anymore.

That or we can realize that in the 150 million flights that took place since 9/11, their have been 3 attempts that actually made it on the plane, all of which failed spectacularly. 1 in 50,000,000 flights had an attempted terrorist attacks. And 40,000 people die in car accidents. Sometimes your 'civil libertarian friends' are worried about more than just rights: they're worried about saving lives.

Posted by: ogvor | November 23, 2010 3:55 PM | Report abuse

Ezra:

Do you keep a list of obscure journalists and bloggers at hand at all times? I had to go to the internet again to find out who Kevin Drum is and what expertise he has in what works and doesn't regarding TSA. The answer is a journalist, and none whatsoever.

I don't think I've ever read a column that cited so many links on so many different topics where the people had no expertise in the area they were writing about, BUT, cited each other, constantly.

At least Broder, Millbank, Cohen, Will and the older guys use people involved in the actual business they're writing about most of the time.

Posted by: 54465446 | November 23, 2010 3:57 PM | Report abuse

"At least Broder, Millbank, Cohen, Will and the older guys use people involved in the actual business they're writing about most of the time."

Appeal to authority much? Want to stump up some bona fides?

This is a conversation that includes plenty of reference to airline security expertise. But the *politics* of screening are, frankly, a separate issue from the policy, making your whine beside the point.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | November 23, 2010 4:03 PM | Report abuse

The problem with the TSA procedure changes - and Ezra cites them all - is they repeatedly fight the last war. 19 guys take out WTC with boxcutters & the rest of us give up our tweezers. Reid's shoes don't blow & the rest of us go through security barefoot. Cap't Underpants sears his loins & now we're getting groped or having pseudonude photos taken. So what's going to happen when the bad guys figure out they have to shove a bomb up their bum to get through security? Are we going to begin subjecting ourselves to those searches as well, or figure out a better alternative?

Posted by: bsimon1 | November 23, 2010 5:12 PM | Report abuse

Klein, it's not the inconvenience, it's the cancer we're worried about.

Posted by: staticvars | November 28, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse

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