Flying back from England after Christmas, I got to enjoy the fruits of the US state’s insane institutional paranoia, as the airport staff opened everyone’s bag and patted everyone down before letting us on the plane (flying from the US, I of course had no such problem, as the TSA is blissfully unconcerned about what someone might do on a plane flying over Canada). It’s an interesting illustration of the irrationality of security policy, as this supposed need for greater security measures is the exact opposite of what the TSA should have concluded from the failure of the Christmas Day pants-bombing attempt. The key point here is that the attempt failed: the evidence we have shows that it’s really hard to smuggle a usable bomb onto a plane in your pants. The same is true of the failed shoe-bombing and the failed small-bottles-of-liquid bombing. What these show is that there’s no need to get everyone to take off their shoes, or throw away their bottles of water: the security measures that were in place before these attempts were evidently sufficient to foil such attempts, because the attempts were actually foiled. Every failed terrorist plot is evidence that we have plenty of security, and should be taken as an opportunity to consider whether we can’t actually get by with a bit less.
The response to the failed pants bomb has at least provoked a bit of a backlash, although the focus on the privacy violations of the pants-scanning machines strikes me as misconceived. “Privacy” keeps getting construed as a mere matter of personal modesty, as if the point of rights was to avoid momentary embarrassment. But I don’t care if some security guy gets a quick peak at my cock, and you shouldn’t care either about the mere visibility of your quasi-naked body. The point of rights isn’t just to prevent us feeling uncomfortable, but to prevent against abuses of power, and there are potential abuses here; the scanners might be used to size up targets for various kinds of sexual harassment or assault, for instance, but most objections don’t seem to be couched in those terms. This is, perhaps, a logical endpoint of the concept of individual rights: when the concept of right is wholly wedded to the individual, it becomes impossible to imagine, not only forms of collective right or power, but to imagine even that these individual rights might have political significance.