Dumb and dumberer

As a photographer who travels, I would like to dispel a couple of myths.

When I was a child, I would have laughed at the suggestion I would one day have to remove my shoes and belt on a regular basis. Unless I am a jailed criminal, that’s not going to happen! And having to hold my hands visibly above my lap? Being interrogated about bathroom use, and no bathroom visits allowed for an hour? Not allowed to touch my belongings? No dystopia I could have dreamt up would have contained militaristic measures quite so extreme. Being seen naked every time I travel? Now I would have really pinched my arm, convinced I was having a very unrealistic nightmare.

And yet, this now happens every time we board one of these:

So the first myth I would like to dispel is the myth that my “slippery slope” arguments are fearmongering. It’s like when something bad happens and you mention the Nazis, that somehow invalidates the argument. I have never understood quite why: Nazism is a great lesson to us all in “how not to let things happen”. Similarly, every time you express displeasure at increasing silliness of our air travel security, the argument is dismissed with “oh, it’s that slippery slope argument again”. Well, the slipperly slope is not in the future: it is here; and we have already slid down it into the lake.

The second myth is that our “security” efforts actually do anything to enhance security. Of course they don’t.

Here’s how our kneejerk-reaction security thinking goes:

  1. Mohammad Atta used box cutters: Quick, ban all wine glasses and pocketknives. Stare intently and suspiciously at travellers’ belongings. Give travelers plastic forks, too. Epi-pens (and I carry one regularly) are still allowed, by the way (would-be terrorists, take note).
  2. Richard Reed used shoes: Quick, take off shoes. (Remember to shout at your clients in an authoritative manner if they do not do this quickly enough).
  3. UK terrorists used liquids: Quick, ban all liquids! 100 ml is OK though, but only if in a one-quart plastic bag (sucks to be you, metric people). Make mothers drink breast milk to ensure it’s not poison.
  4. Mr Abdulmutallab used explosives hidden in his underwear: Quick, let’s hand-search all carry-on bags! (The logic kills me, even if the bombs don’t).
  5. Better, let’s ban carry-on bags, as Canada has done! That’ll really help! (Oh and no more camera use before landing – guess I took my last ever aerial shots recently. Oh and no more iPod use. Oh and no more navigation display.)

Let me help our authorities out a bit by suggesting some logical next steps:

  • Mr Abdulmutallab used explosives in his underwear: So quick, ban all underwear! Commando-style only – and we will check!
  • A recent Saudi attack where the bomber had the explosives up his anus: Quick, mandate rectal (and vaginal, for those of us who have one)  searches for all!

Not so far-fetched: Amsterdam has already mandated that the “naked scanner” is now used on all US-bound travelers. How far are much expanded cavity searches? Let’s at least do them for all 500,000 people on that secret American watch list (the one that is so secret it is not even shared with the authorities). That’s a lot of cavities to inspect!

So OK. Is any of this contributing to security?

  • Of course not. If someone is determined, they will find a way every time. Interrogating Greek grandmothers will not stop religious fundamentalists who are willing to kill themselves. It’ll be explosive fillings next, or explosive material wigs, or whatever.
  • Of course not. Air travel is already very safe. The chance of being killed by a terrorist is many times smaller than being killed by a sandwich on a flight or by a drunk driver on your way to the airport.
  • Of course not. 100 ml of liquids, but you can have at least five bottles of 100ml in your quart sized bag, and if there’s 5 terrorists that’s 2.5 liters of liquid.
  • Of course not. No getting up for an hour before landing? This is a magical 60-minute period, somehow, and terrorists will be foiled? Or, having read the new rules, will they simply set off their bombs 65 minutes before landing?
  • Of course not. Even in the unlikely case we can make air travel terrorist-free (by allowing buck naked, anesthetized passengers only), the Mohammed Attas will simply switch to attacking ships, bookstores, or McDonalds Restaurants.

The measures will give the terrorists what they want – in fact, it has already – by instilling a climate of fear and by showing cowardice – which Arab culture is very sensitive to. They won, we lost, as we cower ineffectively in the corner, trembling with fear.

It will also discourage travel. And I mean, really.Why do we want to subject ourselves to virtual strip searches, shouted militaristic commands, manual luggage checks, long lineups and limitations in carry-on?

Take me. When I traveled to Phoenix last month, I had this in my carry-on luggage:

  • Canon 1D MkIII
  • 24-70 2.8L
  • 70-200 2.8L
  • 16-35 2.8L
  • 35mm f/1.4
  • 50mm f/1.4
  • Two speedlites
  • Macbook Air
  • and on my other shoulder, a Canon 1Ds MkIII

Total replacement cost of the above: Around C$27,000. And airlines want me now to check that? And if it is lost or damaged, their liability is $250, if I remember right? That’s not going to happen.

What we really need is an end to kneejerks and instead, to move to Israeli-type security. Having travelled there repeatedly, I can assure you that Israel’s security is effective, and the Israelis use two things we lack in our efforts. They use (a) intelligence, and (b) respect.

The Star gets it right, here [link]. A must read, and I agree with it entirely.

I am not holding my breath. And until the silliness is restricted, I just don’t fly.

0 thoughts on “Dumb and dumberer

  1. I can’t argue a single word of that. Every time an incident happens, the “authorities” have this need to show they are doing something. We’ve always known that existing regulations will never be perfect, but still seem to expect perfect results. It’s okay to fine tune once you know new information, but this reactionary stuff has got to stop.

    The rule about 60 minutes is just ridiculous. I hope it causes someone to be fired. I can’t believe there is that kind of incompetence at that level of authority.

  2. Indeed. Alas, I am not holding my breath: intelligence and logic are apparently anathema to our authorities. Even President Obama is making the wrong sounds. Why will no-one say “Screw you and the horse you rode in on, terrorists – we will carry on with our lives”? The Israelis do it right, and there is no reason we too cannot use respect and intelligence, rather than seemingly mandating the absence of both.

  3. Well Michael, you know that you and I are pretty much on the same page on this one. For those who are interested in my own personal rant on the ineffectiveness of the recent rules, feel free to head over to my travel blog at http://TheCrimeTraveller.com and read my post, “Safety, Security & Stupidity.”

    The one area in which I disagree with you is your concern over the so called “virtual strip search”. I have seen the video / still images from these machines and actually believe they are an appropriate approach to efficient security screening. They have been in place at Ben Gurion in Israel for some time now. The software automatically blurs the face and genitals of the subjects (though unless one has a fetish for eerily glowing digital skeletons, you won’t get your rocks off as these images barely have a passing resemblance to a truly naked human being). The protocols in effect for their use also stipulate that a person can at any time opt out of the scanner search and choose a physical pat-down instead.

    I for one feel that the minimally intrusive and far quicker digital scan is preferably to having a TSA agent pat-down my underpants. I’m also certain that the technology does a much better job of identifying risks to aircraft than the cursory, yet invasive, physical pat-down.

  4. Fair enough – though for me, there are two levels.

    Personally, I don’t care who sees me naked – that isn’t what I object to as such. What I object to in this is the fact that yet again, the borders of what is acceptable have been expanded.

    At Ben Gurion they rarely use those scanners; they use their brains instead. At Schiphol, the naked scan (genitals not blurred, as far as I know) is now compulsory for all US-bound passengers. Years ago I said “it’s going to be strip searches for all, next”, and I was pooh-poohed by many (“you and your slippery slope: you’re just being alarmist”). Well, that prophecy has come true, if only in a virtual manner.

    Eerily glowing skeletons…. mmm….

  5. And two seconds after I type this I see a talking head “Airport Security Expert” on the BBC saying “we need to be ready for internally concealed explosives – the strip x-ray is not enough”. OK, so my next prophesy, even if made in jest, was not all that crazy, apparently.

  6. Hi Michael:
    A Happy New Year (and welcome to the new Orwellian world).
    I am going down to St. Kitts for the month of March and had intended to take my 7D and a couple of lenses. It looks as though I will only be able to take my LX3.
    Make no mistake, the ban on cabin luggage is airline imposed to reduces their screening costs.
    Maybe we’ll all be screened naked in a dark room!
    I’ll still go on my holiday even if all I can take is a disposable film camera. Maybe one day the powers that be will stop reacting and do some forward thinking.

  7. I agree with your view that we (Canada, USA, UK etc) need to address security like the Israelis do. My big question is, how on earth would the US TSA hire, train and retain enough staff intelligent enough to do that work?

    Ben Gurion International Airport handled ~11.5 million passengers in 2008. JFK Airport alone handled ~47 million in 2008. (According to the relevant Wikipedia articles).

    If you were the chief of the TSA or its equivalent in Canada, how would you go about setting up such a system?

    I agree the Isreali approach is superior but I don’t know if it scales.

  8. Pretty much what I thought. CNN reports that most people do not mind the naked scans: “we go to the doctor and get naked there, so why not here”, is their rationale, it appears. So the borders have been once again moved – now virtual strip searches are accepted. Real oncs next. My slippery slope is real, and it’s here, and we’re half way down it.

    The rationale “if it saves me from terrorism, no problem”. People who say that may wish to note that Hitler and Dr Goebbels used “Security” as the pretext top remove most civil liberties in 1930s Germany, also.

    It gets worse. Batteries not allowed anymore either I hear now. So, the USA has ceased to be a country I wish to go to. With me, how many millions (billions) of others? And this is somehow a good thing?

      • Depends on the pay.

        First there is the humiliation. My price for being humiliated is fairly high. (And not just for me. A fact the USA consistently fails to keep in mind when dealing with terrorists and when asking “gee, why do they hate us”).

        Then there is the money risk. You do the math. $25,000+ worth of camera gear that I have to check, and that if it arrives dented or not all all, I get no insurance coverage for. Neither from the airline, nor the government, nor the insurance company once they found out I checked it. This is not a theoretical “not sure” – this is a very significant chance of mishaps with zero insurance coverage.

        So unless I can drive, it’s going to cost.

    • I am sure people do mind – but what can we do? “For security reasons” is the standard un-answerable bureaucratic response. I grumbled about it at http://bkkphotographer.wordpress.com/2009/08/12/for-security-reasons/ for a different reason.

      If we stop travelling, the terrorists have met their objectives.

      It’s a Catch 22 in the insurance system – if you check your equipment it isn’t covered but the airline requires you to check it. That will affect huge numbers of people, not only photographers. That will have to change. The insurance companies will see a business opportunity and charge you a higher premium to cover valuables in checked bags.

  9. The insurance companies? Don’t start me – had stuff stolen last year, and am still reeling. Desjardins… don’t start me.

    I used to do 150,000 miles a year in the air every year, for ten years. Now I have stopped. Last year, about 6,000 miles. This year, I imagine even less. I am just not willing to be voluntarily humiliated in the police-state like lineups.

    Yes, Al Qaeda have won, and I despise not so much them (they’re morons who don’t know any better), but “our” people. Cameras everywhere. Shouted militaristic commands. Shoes and belts off. Virtual strip searches. No toilet and no more hand luggage on US-bound flights from Canada. NO way to bring cameras. My life has been materially altered, and not by Al Qaeda: by the idiots who run our “Security” and by our cowardly politicians. Where’s Winston Churchill when you need him??

  10. But – good news. CATSA conformthat as a photographer I am OK:

    Mr. Willems,

    I confirm that the items proposed as well as the bag shown on the picture will be permitted by the screening officers.

    Best regards,

    Justine Drouin
    Client Satisfaction / Satisfaction des clients
    Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) /
    Administration canadienne de la sûreté du transport aérien (ACSTA)
    Toll free / Sans-frais: 1-888-294-2202 (8:30 – 17:00 ET) – Please select option #3 for reception

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