14 July 2007

Fascism for Everyone!

A happy Bastille Day to all. My recent experiences with the TSA in the U.S.A. have rekindled a latent interest in the TSA's ongoing efforts to undermine civil rights and the progress being made to counter them. It seems I'm not as special as I believed myself to be -- incidents like those I experienced recently are apparently quite common, as I have learned through a bit of Internet research over the past couple of weeks. In particular, calling over the cops and being threatened with arrest seems to be the standardised, approved response to any traveller who is uppity enough to actually exercise their civil rights anywhere near a TSA agent. You can find references to a lot of incidents just by googling a few select keywords (try "TSA" and "assholes" for starters), but there are two air travellers out there whom I think have been particularly exemplary in their efforts to expose the TSA's illegal and pointless practices.

First is Edward Hasbrouck, a writer, blogger and air traveller who has become a sort of self-taught expert on everything to do with air travel. I don't know anything about him beyond what's in his own blog, but he not only knows more about about fares, ticketing, air travel regulations, treaties, and history than anyone else, he writes about these issues in a very accessible way, and backs everything with detailed references to relevant legal code, treaties, etc. Hasbrouck had an experience similar to my own. (Both of our experiences took place at a Washington airport; mine at the one I refuse to name because it was named after the most virulently anti-Socialist President in U.S. history, one who actively supported genocidal megalomaniacs like Robert D'Aubisson and Jonas Savimbi simply because they professed to be 'anti-communist'; Hasbrouck on the other hand was flying out of the one I refuse to name because it was named after a certain U.S. Secretary of State, known for making his fortune by working with Nazi Germany and for starting the Viet Nam War). Hasbrouck was was detained, questioned and threatened with arrest simply for asking questions concerning the individual who was demanding to see his passport at the entrance to the inspection area. It turns out that this individual was an employee of a contractor called "Airserv," and therefore had no right whatsoever to ask for any one's identity documents. Hasbrouck, like myself, has travelled extensively and experienced his share of officiousness and arbitrary exercise of power at the hands of petty officials in many countries for all manner of real and imagined transgressions. He also notes (and my own experiences are similar) that nowhere else other than the USA, including numerous countries with reputations for totalitarian and/or authoritarian tendencies, has he ever been subjected to such aggressive harassment simply for asking some questions.

Although he is not as knowledgeable about or dedicated to air travel issues in the same way Hasbrouck is, the actions of traveller Ryan Bird were in many ways a more entertaining -- and therefore more effective -- response to the ludicrous "policies" promulgated by the TSA's security theatre apparatus. When TSA chief Kip Hawley announced the latest in the TSA's ongoing efforts to discover just how ridiculous they can make their demands yet still get compliance from the travelling public by decreeing that travellers now had to put all carry-on liquids in "3 ounce" bottles and pack these in a "one quart" plastic bag (and presumably carry-ons should now weigh no more than 2 stone, and not exceed 3/32 of a furlong in length and 7/16 of rod in width, or have a capacity of more than 17 gills), Bird decided to fashion his into what is now being called a "Freedom Bag" by using a marker to write "Kip Hawley is an Idiot" in large black letters on his bag before sending it through the X-Ray machine. The TSA inspectors at the security checkpoint in Milwaukee found it very amusing, passing it around and laughing at it in turn before handing it back and wishing him a pleasant flight. I am KIDDING of course! They summoned the police, who detained and questioned him before threatening him with arrest. When Bird reminded the TSA officer of his 1st Amendment rights, he was told "out there" you have rights, "in here" you don't. Bird subsequently started a forum thread on Flyer Talk that discusses the incident that as of today has grown to slightly under 2000 posts. It was also encouraging to see that Bird included a forum poll on this thread in which readers could vote on whether or not they approved of his actions -- almost 80% approved, which means that only a handful of travellers are actually being deceived by the TSA's "show us your papers, take off your shoes, don't carry on liquids" security theatre. However, it was discouraging to learn that despite all the intervening publicity and ridicule, the intervention of Bird's congressional representatives, and numerous follow-ups, the TSA has yet to officially respond to Bird, almost a year after the incident. And why is this overwhelming majority who are sympathetic to Bird, Hasbrouck and myself so pathetically timid? When I go through one of these checkpoints, I am clear, assertive and articulate about what I expect from the inspectors and specific about the demands I find silly and unnecessary. There are usually dozens of other travellers within clear earshot, yet not one of them has ever had the cojones to open his/her mouth and verbally support me -- something I would not hesitate to do if I witnessed another traveller being harassed for exercising their rights. Twice I have even had police or security officers involves discretely offer words of support, but only when out of earshot of their colleagues. Being a 'closet' freedom supporter isn't enough -- people need to speak up and get in the TSA's face more often.

I am still continuing on my own efforts to force the TSA to respond to my formal complaints about their threat to arrest me at SJO in 2004, and I have now filed complaints concerning my recent experiences at DCA and BOS. I am not optimistic, but if there are any developments, I'll write about them here.

Anyone who still doubts that the TSA is more concerned about maintaining the façade of their own security theatre -- as opposed to actually enhancing travel safety -- need only remember the cases of Nathaniel Heatwole and Christopher Soghoian. Heatwole was a college student who repeatedly smuggled box cutters (yes, the same kind used in the 9/11 hijackings) and fake explosive devices onto aircraft. He stashed them in rest rooms and other places, then emailed the TSA terror alert email address about their location, in an effort to bring these glaring security loopholes to light. First off, the TSA was forced to acknowledge that they didn't even read emails sent to that mailbox, since they "didn't have the resources." Worse, when they did eventually learn about the smuggled items they decided to prosecute him instead of giving him the medal he deserved. Why? Because the point is not to create security, but to create security theatre -- i.e., make the cowering masses of voters who have bought into the whole terrorist bogeyman thing feel like you are doing something about it. Heatwole's actions exposed the whole thing as an absurd farce, and therefore he had to pay the price. Soghoian's experience was similar: as a security researcher who regularly exposes security flaws in all sorts of public and private institutions, he created a web-site that allowed anyone to easily create and print a fake Northwest Airlines boarding pass authentic-looking enough to get you past the TSA's security monkeys. Again, rather than thanking this guy for demonstrating how flawed and inept the system is, he had his home raided by the FBI (at 2 o'clock in the morning, no less), and his computers taken away.

I suppose that's what irritates me the most -- even at the very moment you are being harrassed and annoyed by the TSA over your questioning of their petty and useless regulations, you can look around and in a few minutes mentally develop a half-dozen or more ways to defeat their ineffective measures. Figuring out a way to get some materials past some school drop-out with badge is no where near as challenging as the obstacles most of us successfully deal with every day in our professional lives. Yet when someone makes a successful and dramatic demonstration of how pointless the TSA's approach is, they're treated as if they are the threat, rather than the boneheads like Chertoff and Hawley who are responsible for this state of affairs.

BlognDog
Doha
14 July 2007

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