You didn’t get a virgin when you drew me as one of your political commentators, for I’ve been through the fires of Texas politics, including having been elected state agriculture commissioner. Among other duties, this office made me the regulator of such matters as pesticide use, the accuracy of gas pump gauges and even the sizing of eggs.
I can tell you from experience that wielding regulatory authority is both a blessing and a curse for political officials. You can do some real good for the public, but your best efforts can also make fast enemies of the regulatees.
So my general instruction to the staff was that we should not regulate just for the hell of it, just because we could. Rather, any rules we imposed should respond to a real need and should actually work — work in the sense that they would deliver the protection the public needs.
We had a little internal slogan to guide us: “When in doubt, try common sense.”
I’d like to loan this slogan to the national authorities in charge of protecting us from terrorist attacks, for they seem determined to restrict the American people rather than actually to stop terrorists. In response to the deranged Nigerian who tried to blow up a passenger jet with his underwear on Christmas Day, they’ve done a collective regulatory knee-jerk that is kicking us ever deeper into the wilds of security silliness.
This was not their first knee-jerk. Thanks to the fizzled shoe bomb incident aboard a 2001 flight, they still require all of us who fly in our Land of the Free to bow to the gods of global terrorism by removing our booties and putting our tiny tubes of toothpaste in little zippy bags. This ridiculous ritual, we’re told, will fend off another shoe bomber.
But terrorists seem to be somewhat adaptive (gosh, who could’ve imagined it?), so the latest attack comes not from shoes, but from an al-Qaida guy’s shorts. The only way to stop this, cry the knee-jerkers, is to have authorities peek under every passenger’s skivvies.
To allow airport screeners to do just that, corporate profiteers are peddling super-sophisticated x-ray machines with “Superman eyes.” You will have to stand in the scanner, and spread your legs and raise your arms in the arrest position to give your friendly screener a front-and-back, full-body look right through your clothes. Supposedly, faces will be blurred out, but body contours of every man, woman and child who flies will be on the screen — and some images almost certainly will pop up on Internet postings. “So what?” bark the authorities. “Freedom comes at a price, and this new rule is all about us protecting you.”
Really? Let’s note that one of the big backers of the full-body technology is former homeland security honcho Michael Chertoff. In dozens of interviews he gave after the Christmas incident, Chertoff demanded nationwide deployment of these machines to stop more underwear attacks by terrorists. Now, guess whose Washington consulting firm represents Rapiscan Systems, one of the major contractors selling the machines to the government. Right. Chertoff’s firm.
Rather than searching every one of us, officials need to be searching for actual terrorists, using old-fashioned intelligence-gathering and common-sense coordination to stop assailants before they even get to an airport. The Christmas Day bomber should never have gotten near that plane, for he was known by U.S. officials to be a terrorist threat.
How did they know? His own father told our officials about him last November! Yet, in a gross failure of inter-agency communications, no official revoked his visa or put him on the “no fly” list.
Our authorities want us to pay (in cash and liberties) for a whiz-bang technological gimmick that will enrich a couple of corporations, but will do nothing to stop the next thing the terrorists come up with. Let’s raise common sense to high places. One group fighting this latest technological silliness can be reached at flyersrights.org.
Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, columnist and author.