To Let the Government Touch, or Not to Let the Government Touch

Ronald Reagan famously quipped that the most terrifying sentence in the English language is "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help." Truly, Ronaldus Magnus was more right than he ever knew. Behold your friendly government agent, who is only here to help, in a photo at the Denver Post.

It's not quite the Gadsden Flag, but this image is fast becoming the symbol of the new "Don't touch my junk" movement.  Whether to let government agents touch us where the sun don't shine or not is no longer an academic question. It's happening to more and more fliers every day, among other things altering the meaning of "frequent flier" in some unpleasant ways. And never let anyone hear you say that you enjoy air travel nowadays. They'll look at you funny. And as each day of this passes, you'll deserve it.

But the great TSA, or T&A, fracas brings up an item for debate: Which is more invasive, the picture machine/close touch combo or the mental search as done by the Israelis? Before you answer, read up on Michael Totten's take on Israeli airport security techniques:

[O]fficials at Ben Gurion International Airport interview everyone in line before they're even allowed to check in.

And Israeli officials profile. They don't profile racially, but they profile. Israeli Arabs breeze through rather quickly, but thanks to the dozens of dubious-looking stamps in my passport -- almost half are from Lebanon and Iraq -- I get pulled off to the side for more questioning every time. And I'm a white, nominally Christian American.

If they pull you aside, you had better tell them the truth. They'll ask you so many wildly unpredictable questions so quickly, you couldn't possibly invent a fake story and keep it all straight. Don't even try. They're highly trained and experienced, and they catch everyone who tries to pull something over on them.

That sounds more than a little intimidating. But don't answer yet. Not until you've heard from Claire Berlinski.

When I last flew El Al, they began with simple questions: Why are you flying to Israel? To give a lecture? Where? Who invited you? Really? Do you have a copy of the invitation? How do you know them? Really? And you don’t speak Hebrew? None? Why not? You didn’t learn any in school? Why not? It went on for quite some time. Somehow I ended up telling them where exactly I’d gone to kindergarten. That’s not one of those details that would be easy to manufacture on the spot.

Where she went to kindergarten? That's pretty invasive, actually, but only in a mental and personal-biography sense. It could be mildly embarrassing if you went to some school that you didn't want to admit to in public, I suppose, so Aggies may not like it. The likelihood of the questioning agent actually remembering all of those details you're forced to give them is pretty low. They're smart, trained agents, but they interview hundreds if not thousands of travelers per day. And they're not really looking for the information anyway; they're gauging your reaction to the questions, and evaluating that for possible further inquiry.

On the other hand, the likelihood of TSA's picture machines saving your naked pic for further, ahem, study is higher than we were told when they and their lobbyists sold these things to the public.

Terrorists are smart, or at least the terror masters who send out the stupid bombers are smart. They study our security methods. They adapt based on their successes and failures. They mix it up.  One day it's box cutters, the next it's a shoe bomb, the one after that it's the panty bomber. You can see where this is going, and the next search mechanism that takes that next move entirely into account is going to give us all a national colonoscopy. Literally. But hey, TSA is only here to help.

So far, our federal betters' approach has been to adapt to what the terrorists have already done, not what they're about to do or thinking of doing. The Israeli system seems to take this tactical reality into account. Instead of focusing on what terrorists have already done and using that to inconvenience and irritate the innocent flying public, the Israelis focus on behavior. What they're doing, as Michael Totten notes, is profiling. It's just not ethnic profiling.

That makes sense too, once you give it a few minutes' thought. Arabs comprise about 9% of the Israeli population. Sure, Israel could try to profile that and just keep that 9% off their airplanes. Among other bad outcomes, that's likely to radicalize enough Arabs who wouldn't otherwise go Arafat that it might create more day-to-day security problems than it would be worth. And besides that, profiling against such a broad swath of its population just runs against the grain of what most would consider right or fair, or even justified. And going purely on ethnicity probably wouldn't catch the Jose Padillas and Richard Reids of the world anyway, so the terrorists would just recruit more of them.

The question is, is Israelification of our airports even possible for us?  A year's worth of travel in and out of Ben Gurion probably adds up to half a week of total U.S. annual air travel. We're a lot bigger and we have a lot more airports, with a lot more international connections. It seems to me that Israelification is scalable to the U.S. system. It would require a lot of training and adaptation, but we should be training our security folks to think and act smarter anyway. Aside from keeping us safer, having them become smarter just might keep them from unionizing. Which they were never supposed to be able to do anyway, but may now, thanks to this lawless administration and its tendency to get by with giving more than a little help to its union friends.

Even though the Israeli method can be a bit of a brain invasion, put me down as favoring that over the TSA strip n grope routine. Getting past the frisking of nuns and kids and the unwelcome touching of junk, the Israeli system is one thing that ours definitely isn't: it's smart.