Bin Laden's Dirty Underwear and Civilian-Based Defense

 

When you fly trans-Atlantic as frequently as I do, the trips tend to blur into one another. One constant, however, is the frenetic and arbitrary suspicion I encounter at the U.S. entry points. Be it drug-sniffing dogs, the Egyptian stamps in my passport, or the general contemptuous stares from under-trained TSA yahoos, there may as well be a sign above the jet bridge reading "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here." Add the TSA's plan to capture and track your airport movements through your personal gadgets, an air marshal program that costs approximately $200 million per arrest (the marshals themselves have been arrested with far higher frequency), the constant pillaging of our first, fourth and fifth amendment rights, and our $30 billion annual losses of public and private funds (countless billions more in its assault on the tourism industry), and you've got a boondoggle of paranoia combined with egregious corporate cronyism to produce a system whose expense is exceeded only by its utter uselessness.

Festering underneath all of this is the industries' dirty little secret that for all reforms elsewhere in law enforcement and intelligence, airport security is running the exact same playbook that failed so miserably to prevent 9/11. You can put as many badges and blue uniforms you want on them, but the TSA are nothing more than the same old cast of players, spasmodically trying to dazzle us with their shiny new (yet demonstrably ineffective) props while phoning-in dialogue from the same, tired script. This kind of expensive theater may have been appropriate in the weeks and months following 9/11, but it's time we grow up. The bottom-line is that none of this Madison-Avenue bravado is helping to capture actual terrorists - nay, of the 29,000 or so arrests from the DHS, nearly all were for unrelated charges such as counterfeiting, narcotics, and child pornography. Of the average 50 or so of those arrested annually on "terrorist-related" activities (based on incredibly broad metrics) culminating in convictions, nearly all have resulted from investigations operating well outside airport jurisdictions.

Considering that 9/11 was an aircraft-centric attack (and planes always make attractive targets), our disproportional obsession with airport security (at the expense of more potentially catastrophic targets such as shipping ports, network infrastructures, etc.) had a certain short-term logic. Yet as seductive as this may have been, the time has come to recognize that in the near decade since 9/11, not a single one of these airport security programs has withstood an independent investigation of its efficacy. Rather, on the occasion that an actual terrorist say, the shoe or underwear bomber managed to pull off an attempt, what prevented casualties was not the billions we spend in anticipating absurdly-specific attack scenarios, it was not the endless hours of theater spent removing shoes, and it certainly was not the confiscation of a four-year olds play-do or the destruction of an old man's rectal seton. No, in each case it was not the TSA but us - fellow passengers who understand that sometimes our safety is in our own hands.

In the ad-hoc sense, this is the perfect example of civilian-based defense (open-source security in the modern vernacular) and I would not be the first to point out that this is generally a good thing. After all, surrendering your security to a third party not only breeds complacency but dismantles our most effective means of front-line defense. I believe moreover that this kind of self-determination fosters a more committed civic engagement while providing substantial returns on effectiveness. Yet I would level the same criticism at civilian-based defense that I would at our "professional" systems namely that security must be carefully balanced with a clear definition of precisely what it is we are securing. If we want to secure the safety of our physical bodies, whatever the costs, then marshal law is probably our best option. If, however, we want to secure our right to life that is, our right to preserve and freely participate in our socio-cultural system of choice then we must be certain that our means do not dismantle our ends and become a causal factor in the very problem they purport to address.

Case in point is the FBI's sudden realization that, thanks to programs like New York City's "See Something, Say Something' campaign, all terrorists need to do is leave a harmless bag of underwear lying around in order to cause mass panic, disrupt commerce and distract law enforcement. Ordinarily I would file this under the "no duh' folder and move along. But the fact that the chief federal law-enforcement agency of the United States has just figured this out and that the media outlets find it newsworthy demonstrates that after nearly ten years, most people still have little to no clue no clue about who terrorists are, no clue why they hate us, and no clue how to fight back.

Authoritarian conceptions of security diminish our ability to protect ourselves. At their core, "See something, Say something' programs and their ilk are not only the worst possible perversion of civilian-based defense, but as evidenced by the panic they reap, are actually themselves a form of insecurity. Even putting aside the fact that such campaigns have never once (repeat: not once) resulted in a terrorism-related arrest, the entire concept reeks of the same self-aggrandizement inherent to all forms of domestic counter-terrorism since 9/11 that terrorism is somehow akin to conventional warfare and therefore remains the domain of government. It is a nod to the fact that only an engaged citizenry can defend against a diffuse and nebulous network of attackers yet a simultaneous refusal to cede central authority in the solution. It infantilizes people by providing the illusion of open-source security without any of the concurrent tools and empowerment. Worse, they come with the implicit admonishment that we should all remember our place in this conflict and leave security to the professionals.

Why must it be this way? Perhaps there is some plausibility to the assumption that the government has failed to focus on the only demonstrably effective avenue of security because they simply have no expertise or awareness of civilian-based defense. Suspending our disbelief for the time being, this would indicate such a tremendous oversight that we must seriously question the leadership in the DHS. No, the more logical, albeit tremendously more cynical, explanation is that the continued focus on centralization is tied into the governments twin obsessions over ownership and indispensability.

With regards to the latter, the government is more than aware that it is running out of things to justify its present incarnation. After decades of ceding political authority to international corporations and simultaneously eroding its own regulatory powers, security is virtually all it has left. As we the people have defined the job, this is the state's primary responsibility to ask the people for help would be akin to an admission that they are not up to the task. There is no such thing here as "change we can believe in' as in the final days of the Soviet Union, security-related expenses account for more than half of the national budget. While this fact may be part of a far larger discussion that needs to take place, for the time being the government will continue to claim a monopoly over the means and direction of security.

Of course, the state is likely also aware that this need not be a zero-sum issue. After all, an effective civilian-based defense requires coordination, training, study, planning, instititutionalization all the things that government is really good at. Yet while centralized bureaucracy may pursue such indispensability, it will find it nearly impossible to maintain ownership. When those who wish us harm are unified only by ideology, security is affirmed only by articulating a counter-ideology; an explicit yet fluid vision of the world we would like to see and a set of principles by which this will be actualized. And therein lies the contradiction of ownership when real people are asked to provide for their own security, we are going to demand returns we will not be content to view this as a permanent state of warfare, but rather insist on a proactive and sincere analysis of the underlying causes. And this will seriously undermine the case for the corporatist, neo-liberal planet upon which those who control government now depend.

Tags: gs: TSA, Surveillance Society, nonviolence, airport security, terrorism, Law Enforcement, civil rights, security (all tags)

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