Sunday, December 27, 2009

Memo To Department Of Homeland Security: You Suck

We are reading very little news from the United States while in South Africa, particularly since (thanks to my least favorite senator since Jesse Helms, Joe Lieberman) the health care bill is such a cock-up. But you couldn't log into a commercial email account without reading an account of this incident, in which a Nigerian man attempted to explode a device on board a Northwest flight from Amsterdam, just minutes outside of Detroit. Passengers and crew members are being praised for their quick response in extinguishing the device and restraining the bomber.

TSA officials are promising action, action action, undoubtedly in the form of more high-tech approaches to stopping terrorists before they are able to act. And yet, what we have so far is incredibly expensive and cumbersome security procedures that can be easily circumvented by your average Joe Terrorist. I have always wondered, for example, how metal detectors would respond to explosives made of plastic. Answer? They don't. I have also wondered why, since it is well known that one must remove one's shoes at airport, any terrorist would put explosives in his or her shoe. Answer? They don't: they sew the bomb in their underwear.

There are two machines that might -- and I say might -- have revealed the old bomb in the underwear ploy. One is the machine, which we encountered in the airport in Paris and is in a few airports in the US, that puffs air at you and analyzes the atmosphere for chemical residue. The other one is the X-ray machine, which was very controversial in the US for the prudish reason that it showed the faint outline of genitalia.

The latter machine might be ineffective in the case of a terrorist wearing fake genitalia full of plastique ("That's a joke, son"), but it strikes me that both machines ought to be in regular use. So what if they cost half a million each?

But there are a few other things worth noting:

1. This particular bomber's name had been given to the US embassy in Nigeria by his own father. And yet, despite the fact that there is now a whole group of security professionals who specialize in clearing the names of people who have ended up on the so-called "no fly list" by mistake -- a process that can take months or years -- a guy who is actually on the list was able to board a plane bound for the United States without being thoroughly searched.

2. Northwest is promising a second security check at the gate for all US-bound flights. And yet, when your favorite Radical changed planes in Amsterdam, where our failed bomber boarded his plane to Detroit,six weeks ago, there was a second check at the gate prior to boarding the KLM flight to Cape Town. At this security gate, in addition to a second search of hand luggage, there was a body pat-down for everyone. Have US passengers somehow been exempted from this extra security to date? Is it something that has been sensibly requested by the South African government? Enquiring minds want to know.

3. It was at this second search that a very polite Dutch security guard asked me to unpack my toilet kit and remove the Swiss Army knife that I had put there prior to a car trip in the fall but had neglected to remove prior to this trip. It had been picked up on a simple x-ray of my hand luggage. This knife, however, had made it through x-ray security at Kennedy airport. Explain that, TSA.

I do not obsess about these things since I truly believe if there is a disaster with my name on it I can't do much about it. What I do object to is that airline passengers are put through endless delays and inconveniences on behalf of security precautions that don't seem to work very well. They confiscate your scissors, make you take your belt and shoes off, and then let someone on the plane wearing an exploding jockstrap. The one piece of good news, I suppose, is that American passengers no longer assume -- as they did prior to 9/11 -- that cooperation and meekness in the face of jihadi fanaticism will give them the best chance of survival.


Comrade PhysioProf said...

Yep. It's called security theater. Now that passengers have to stay seated with nothing in their laps for the last hour of the flight, Joe Terrorist will just do his thing in the second to last hour.

Bruce Schneier, a very well-respected security professional, has asserted that for all of the fucktillions of dollars in cash and wasted time and effort and inconvenience that have been expended on "securing" airplanes, only two things have made even the slightest difference: (1) armored cockpit doors and (2) passengers' realization that when shit goes down, you don't just sit there meekly, you take action.

If you are interested in these topics, I recommend his blog highly:

Townsend Harris said...

For passengers in the US, please expect more theatrics. Do not expect substance from the TSA.

joshuax said...

I just finished a 33.5 hour marathon series of flights from Istanbul to Zurich to Rome to Atlanta to Columbus, OH. Had no idea about the Detroit incident until about 15 minutes before I left the airport hotel in Rome to head to my flight back to the US. They rerouted us through a different terminal, shared only by El Al.

I agree with you; most of the security protocols seem designed more to give the appearance of security rather than actually provide it.

I think we knew after 9/11 (like, the day after) that if we wanted total security on flights we'd have to spend a great deal of money. We never really got around to that.

I think what is on the horizon is the complete restriction of cities that can have flights to the US. These chokepoint cities will then have US-based security there to provide the security we imagine is necessary.

But, as you say, until we find a reliable way to stop letting things like knives and exploding underwear through security checks, then we're really just spinning gears.

Laurel said...

My parents once accidentally flew with three 10-inch butcher knives in their carry-on bag. True story. They make cured pork for a living, were traveling home from a promotional event, and accidentally packed the knives in the wrong bag.

They realized what they'd done only after they arrived home and opened the carry-on bag to find the knives neatly on top of their clothes. My mother then called TSA to tell them, in the hopes that they'd tighten security or something - mostly just because she was so horrified that she felt like she had to do something. The TSA person she talked to kept telling her, "Ma'am, you cannot bring a butcher knife on the plane" and my mom kept trying to explain that yes, she knew that, it's just she accidentally had already.

TSA theory: if we forbid it, it doesn't exist.

Digger said...

Yes, yes, yes... to all of the above. It's a joke, and it isn't about security, it's about the illusion of security. Security theater, exactly!

W. said...

This is a good post, but I just wanted to suggest that opposition to X-ray machines showing genitalia isn't necessarily nothing but prudery, right? My sense is that the idea made a lot of trans people uncomfortable, in particular.

Susan said...

Well, I think we should just be required to be naked on all flights, then we couldn't hide anything anywhere. If they worried about modesty, they could give us some version of hospital gowns.

But seriously, TR, you are so right about the silliness of security. I've noticed in the past year that small things of hand lotion in my carry on go right through even though they are not in my quart zip lock bag. The best security -- everyone agrees -- is Israeli security. They ask very intrusive questions. They talk to you. It's not mechanical.

As for the would-be bomber, his father notified the embassy in Nigeria that he was concerned about his views, but they didn't have concrete information to put him on a no-fly list. My understanding is that he was one of about 500,000 people world-wide that are "of interest" and being investigated....

What I think is amusing about the new rules is that they apply for flights inbound to the US, but not outbound FROM the US, or internal to the US.

Tenured Radical said...

Dear all:

yes, yes and yes. And W -- re. the trans issues -- a lot of non-trans people feel just as strongly about their bodies being revealed in what is admittedly a very mild way. And being very gender non-conforming myself, and constantly navigating what people I have never met before think I "am", I have to ask, is having a complete stranger wonder why the beautiful woman going through the machine has a dick -- or the handsome Joe with a bitty one -- really an issue you think they debated at the TSA? Or an issue that trumps having said trans person being exploded in mid-flight?

My feeling is, watch what the Israelis do and copy, They have a long history of antagonizing bombers, and have protected their planes very well.

davidjhemmer said...

Here's the worst part. Both Obama and Bush agree we are in a a war on terror in the sense that there are illegal enemy combatants held at Gitmo that may be detained indefinitely without trial. Obama wants to send them to Illinois but he agrees they may be held indefinitely. This bomber is clearly in that category, a foreign national, trained by Al Qaeda committing an act of war against a US-bound flight. Why was he not immediately taken into Gitmo? Instead he is all lawyered up, and today's Washington Posts reports that authorities are "holding out hope" that he will start talking again. He's already said there are 25 more bombers on the way. If ever there were a time for a little "enhanced interrogation" this would be it. But not for Mr. "Keep hope alive" Obama. We'll just "hold out hope" that he fesses up.

davidjhemmer said...

all you "trans" women with huge dicks out there don't have to worry. Where the full-body screeners are set up, the people looking at the images are in a separate room unable to actually see the passengers walk through. So you can go through in all your full drag and they'll just see a naked body with a big dick walking across the screen.

K said...

If we were to emulate Israeli security it would look something like this:
-dark skinned folks would go through seperate security procedures, including not being allowed to wait in the terminal for their flight, should the security forces determine that they can fly. This can mean up to five hours without food, water, or a bathroom.
-seperate prices for tickets based upon religion. Want to fly to Israel? If you're Jewish, you pay up to 30% less than non-Jews for the same El-Al flight bought on the market. Depending on why you're going, the flight could be free. None of the reasons for going for free apply to non-Jews, and they often only apply to certain categories of Jews.
-While the intensive security questioning is less mechanistic than body scans or the like, and probably more effective at something (not sure what, invading privacy maybe?), it is an awful experience. I felt like I was convincing this random dude of who I was, and for what? the privilege of flying an airplane? I have to reveal to a stranger the details of my private prayer life?
Which brings me to a seperate point about genitalia: the only people I want seeing my genitals are lovers and healers.

I would much rather live in a world of risk than give up my right to privacy (under the current construction of humanness, privacy, and property). If I have to show my genitals to the world, even if supposedly "annonymously" (because the annonymity ends if the person suspects your genitals don't look quite right, even if they can't see to whom those genitals belong, a very real risk for those who have had transitioning surgeries*), then dammit, GET RID OF CAPITALISM. Get rid of my body as my property, and I'll be right there with you, going naked on planes. But right now my body is my only property, my labor my only commodity, and ergo, hands off.

*Possible scenarios, based off of bodies I know and care about:
-a body that lacks both breasts and penis/testicles
-a body that possesses both breasts and penis/testicles
-a body that possesses a penis with no testicles, with or without breasts
-a body that possesses genitals that are not appropriately described as penis/testicles or labia/vulva/clitoris, and may show on the scans that ambiguity.
If the scanner is looking for explosives sewn to a jock strap, a packing transman is at risk of being stopped. Were he to be stopped in certain countries (South Africa comes to mind, though the US does as well), this could well endanger his safety in the hands of a transphobic security agent convinced his packing piece is really explosives.

davidjhemmer said...

Sorry Kate we've had two instances now of terrorists packing explosives into their underwear (the first was caught before getting on the plane). You're not going to get any sympathy for opposing certain security procedures on the grounds that those with surgically altered privates might feel uncomfortable. Are you suggesting if I (am man) and feel like I'm a woman I should be able to head through security with a big pair of boobs that are exempt from any kind of inspection? Next thing you know we'll have a titty bomber setting off an DD pair or explosives.

Tenured Radical said...

I do so hate to see conversations become polarized. Israel does have an outstanding security record: like the US, they might not need such tight security but for violent policies that create equally violent blow back. And what Kate describes I have never experienced, but it makes sense given what we know about Israel's domestic policies and policing structures.

That said, my point of disagreement with Kate comes from a queer human rights stance: I think the right to be respected as a trans person is related to, but different from, what an efficient airline security apparatus should look like. And really? The machine they use, and the x-rays, are hardly the point. Trans people often have difficulty even getting to the security checkpoint because of documentation that doesn't fit the gender they are living in. Many don't travel because they can't get passports or other official documentation that reflect their gender of choice (or birth, depending on how you think about it.) What constitutes safety and security for trans people, in my view is a much larger question than the technical issue of how civilians remain safe from terrorist attack -- and to tackle it a a series of location specific issues rather than overarching legal and civil/human rights issues is fundamentally wrong headed.

While I agree with the privacy issues to some extent, the point is that what the X-ray reveals are outlines that might call for further investigation in a more secluded setting. It's not clear to me that a silicone dick would look different on such a machine than a bio-penis. Furthermore, I think this is not an issue that is limited to transpeople -- the people who have objected to this are (straight) people who believe that the person scanning them is actually seeing their naked bodies, which is not so.

Yes, a transman packing might have issues with that, but the queer point here is: *no one* has a normal body, and many people who are not trans enhance their bodies with synthetic materials that they wouldnt want to have revealed. And why exactly is a prosthetic penis different from a prosthetic leg? That's a political issue to think about from my perspective.

But (and my time in S. Africa has caused me to believe this more strongly) that's what's wrong with liberalism. We ask whether a particular policy or practice will expose any number of identity groups to prejudice and ridicule, rather than having the courage to correct the conditions that confer shame. Hence, butch lesbians and transmen often don't go to the doctor; I have known too many who have been diagnosed with a nasty cancer very late in the day because of this reluctance to deal with medical practitioners who might treat them badly -- or a refusal to deal with the ambiguities of their own bodies for fear of being shamed.

It's the shame we have to deal with: why we trans people persistently feel it, and why others (including the state) feel the need to confer it. And as for being blown up in a plane, this trans person is not ready for that yet, nor to take the other 300 people with me.

Tenured Radical said...

*Sigh.* I just had to remove two needling comments from a reader, goading me about my gender identity because of my identification with the trans community in the previous comment. I would have removed them earlier, but the internet in South Africa is very fragile.

Two points here: for any trans folk that were intimidated from commenting on my exchange with Kate because of this badly brought up person (and/or raving alcoholic, given the time stamp on the comments), please don't be. It's not about you: it's about someone who doesn't like me.

The second point is that this is a perfect example of conferring shame as an attempt to intimidate or exert power over another person: the commenter was making me out to be a freak of some kind because of what is undoubtedly a long-standing grudge, not because of what body, soul or gender I actually have. And my experience is that to reject that is effective resistance, rather than trying to micro-manage the world to protect me.

Happy New Year!

bali luxury said...

This is really not good and I am against it. I don't understand what they try to prove from it. It's really disgusting.

davidjhemmer said...

Didn't see the deleted comments but it sure did look like you were declaring yourself trans TR : "we trans people..." Unless it was some kind of "We're all Americans" show of solidarity.

Tenured Radical said...

Dear RWP,

The comments were goading and nasty, and utterly without content. Whatever I mean by identifying with the trans community. I would prefer not to derail the post by further comment, although it is true that I am repeatedly identified socially as a man, and I have negotiated that since I was a child. The comments, however, were uncalled for and used sexuality as a personal (not even a political attack) Thank you for your respectful inquiry, however.

Sarah said...

I've flown in, out, and through Israel multiple times, with a variety of traveling companions. It's true that Israeli security profiles people, especially those of Arab origin, but in my experience, it's not as Kate describes.

First, the issue of cost has little to do with. Jews don't get a "Jew discount." There are Jews who fly at no cost to themselves (e.g., on Birthright trips). But aside from group situations like Birthright, everyone is captive to the airline ticket market -- Jew or non-Jew, religious or non-religious, Israeli or non-Israeli, etc.

Second, Security may ask you about religious practices (I know a female rabbi interrogated for flying with tefillin -- which, for those unaccustomed to women as equals to men, seemed odd). Security has asked me about my name, my language skills, where I've been, who I saw/will see, where I packed my luggage, what schools I attended, how I learned languauges, why I study what I do, who I socialize with, why I have an American passport, etc. But frankly, I don't mind telling them this stuff. They can ask me about religion if they want to, and I'll tell them. It's not an inquiry into my spiritual beliefs and they don't care. Hell, I met the fiancee of someone I went to grade school through one of these "conversations." Few others have been that enlightening, but it's part of the drill. Yes, it's intrusive. Yes, it can be annoying. Yes, one can feel ridiculed.

BUT they don't remember what you say, and they're paying more attention to body language than to the answers you give. Do they profile? Yes. Is that unfair? Yes. But, for what it's worth, they're actually pretty good at profiling, which is to say they don't pull aside every dark-skinned non-Jew in line. I've traveled with dark-skinned non-Jews (not part of an official travel delegation or anything like that) and they've been fine, treated and questioned as I -- a white American Jew -- was. I understand that this is not always the case, but it's also not always as awful as Kate posits.

Moreover, a Kurdish Jewish friend of mine (whose grandfather -- not father, not him -- was born in Kurdish Iraq) faces more issues from American passport control/INS than from Israeli airport security.

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