by Eileen | 5:18 pm, June 28, 2012 | Comments Off
Sometimes, setting a pair of news stories in juxtaposition invites all manner of interesting comment.
Take, for example,two items about my favorite federal agency, the TSA. The TSA of yesterday opened and then spilled an urn of human cremains all over the dirty carpet at Orlando Airport, and laughed as the grieving family scurried to collect bits of bone and dust. The TSA of tomorrow, we are hearing, will be virtually invisible and ruthlessly efficient.
How we are to get from desecrating the dead to perfect security with a smile is, alas, like the Underpant Gnomes of Southpark.
Alright, let’s examine this. Per the latest accusation of TSA malfeasance, a man was going through security with a sealed jar of human ashes, clearly marked as such. A female TSO opened the canister, poked through the earthly remnants of the traveler’s grandfather with her fingers, and then managed to spill the jar. As the man frantically tried to scoop up the remains, the TSO laughed.
I genuinely wish I could say I doubt this account. Even more genuinely, I wish I could believe some meaningful and concrete reform will come of this. According to the TSA’s own damn rules, human cremains going through security as a carry-on luggage are not to be opened under any circumstances. That the TSA needs to tell its people, in writing, that sticking your dirty blue-gloved fingers into a stranger’s ashes is poor form worries me greatly.
What’s going on? Is the TSA unable or unwilling to enforce its own rules? Are TSOs so poorly trained that they aren’t aware of the rule manual? Are TSOs people who generally belong to the bottom strata of society, placed into a job where they enjoy a brief moment of control over far wealthier and more educated people, just before they get to watch those people go on vacation?
Probably, all three. TSA’s problem are a combination of bad management,worse employees, and envy. All human beings are corruptible. Freed from oversight and discipline and allowed to run roughshod over the sort of people who normally have nothing to do with you is a recipe to bring out the worst angels of our nature.
And that brings me to my first major point. TSOs are light on judgment. Way light. As I have written before, these are people in a job that they are in no way able to perform. Asking one person to scan crowds and identify the threats is primarily about judgement, and good judgment is something that comes from experience and from being forced to suffer the consequences of poor judgment. No small problem with TSOs is that, no matter what they do or how frequently the same thing happens – such as theft or sexual assault disguised as a pat-down, the TSA merrily dismisses it as an isolated incident and blusters on.
To wit, while looking up one thing and another on the TSA, I came across this story from early 2005 about the TSA senselessly visiting indignities on a jar of human remains. It doesn’t seem much was learned from that.
Applying the fairness principle, I could aver that these are people whose limited intelligence and education equip them for, at best, a very limited range of jobs. I could say that they are at least working. That works right up until you meet a TSO.
Now, to parse the logical fallacy, just because one individual has made life choices that severely narrowed his options does not mean he gains some right to hurt others.
Too, TSOs are paid with our tax dollars. Of course we a right to comment on their performance.
Nor are TSOs humbly doing their job. A common thread of all these complaints about TSA conduct isthe arrogance and contempt of TSOs. Too, we read that a TSO groped a child, and the official TSA line is that groping children is against policy and the TSO in question is an exception. Then, we read that a TSO made a cancer survivor remove her prosthetic breast, and the official TSA line is that humiliating cancer survivors is against policy and the TSO in question is an exception. And now we have read that a TSO spilled human ashes all over an airport floor, and the TSA points us to its policy of not opening funeral urns.
Well, yes, it’s lovely that you have put words on paper, but your men in the field are clearly not abiding, so what do you plan to do?
No, really. The TSA’s comment of the ashes incident is that the complainant has an “inconsistent” story. And that will likely be the end of the story.
The second story is one of a puff piece about the TSA of the future. The article tells us of quiet and soothing corridors where travelers stroll toward their flight, unaware they are even being assessed as security threats.
Right off the bat, this rosy vision is too happy and blithe. Once one begins to think about what it would mean for unseen forces to examine you at a distance, the rosy vision gets gloomy and chilly. How much background information will be channeled into an ever-growing government database in order to decide who is and is not a threat? What sort of ‘we-see-through-your-clothes’ technology will be unveiled ? At one point, the article glows over how TSOs will use biometric scanners to decide what people are giving off ‘suspicious’ facial expressions and body language.
Let me give the abbreviated rebuttal to this. Anytime someone or some organization promises to let you into secure areas without causing you any inconvenience or stress, the catch is unvaryingly that you submit a raft of private details beforehand, so that you may be vetted. When the state does this, they exempt themselves from either law or decency when it comes to sharing, selling, and profiting of your data. Machines that let users peer through walls and see strangers beneath their clothes are the stuff of nightmares. The sort of radiation such machines use of is real medical concern. Even experts on psychology, deception, and body language do little better than chance when it comes to picking out the liars.
And now I’m right back at my criticism that that TSA and its front line TSOs have just got no judgment. Once run through a 90 minute lecture, falsely told they are no experts in human behavior, and given a checkbox of things that are signs of deceit or intent to cause harm, the same rude and foolish men who take your eyedrops and unfold all your t-shirts will be yanking innocent people aside to be questioned because their eyebrows were twitching in a terrorist fashion.
Simply, no amount of new machines and seminars and budget increases and verbose protocols will make up for the fact that people asked to use all that finery haven’t got any common sense. Nor is anything in the TSA’s (public) plans indicative of some plausible method to inject a little sense into the process.
Lastly, I would caution Americans that tolerating the continuation and extension of wasteful spending, privacy violations, and incursions of civil rights so long as its all done quietly is a catastrophe.
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