Bob Johnson & the TSA

Politico reported today that:

A candidate for Congress in Georgia said earlier this year that he’d rather see another terrorist attack on the United States than have Transportation Security Agency screenings at airports.

Bob Johnson, a doctor and Republican candidate in Georgia’s solidly-red 1st District, said at a February candidate forum that the TSA is “indoctrinating” Americans.

“Now this is going to sound outrageous, I’d rather see another terrorist attack, truly I would, than to give up my liberty as an American citizen,” he said, according to a video clip obtained by POLITICO. “Give me liberty or give me death. Isn’t that what Patrick Henry said at the founding of our republic?”

Johnson later apologized for the remark saying, “In the heat of the moment…I said something stupid and should have chosen my words more carefully…”* And yes, certainly it is not too difficult to see how perhaps a candidate for public office would not want to be seen to invite future terrorist attacks, even while engaged in a bout of what one imagines was hyperbole.

But you know what? Screw it. Good for Bob Johnson for clearly stating the trade-offs we, as a free society, have to make in dealing with terrorist threats to commercial aviation, even if it probably wasn’t the best thing he’s ever done for his political career.**

Living in a free and open country like the United States necessarily involves assuming some risk of terrorist attack. It’s a risk that can to some extent be modulated by policy (planes are probably safer now because you can’t walk onto them with a fucking gun in your bag – seriously 1960s and 70s are you kidding me with some of this shit?), but it can never be policy-ed away to zero. At some point, the likelihood of a terrorist attack gets to be so small that any reductions to that figure come at the cost of restrictions to personal liberties and freedoms that are, proportionally, substantial.

So when Bob Johnson says he’d rather see another terrorist attack than continue with the charade (my word, not his) that is TSA, he’s right – ish. What he really should have said was, “I’d rather see a greater chance of a terrorist attack than deal with TSA.” Because that is exactly the trade we would be making, and it would be a good trade. The likelihood of a terrorist attack is tiny to begin with, and for reasons that have nothing to do with TSA. TSA, meanwhile, has played no role in thwarting the post 9-11 attacks which have been stopped in-process, and it’s not at all clear TSA would have done anything to stop Atta & company on September 11th had it existed then. The infamous box cutters aren’t really much of a weapon, and now that terrorists’ desire to use airplanes as missiles rather than bargaining chips is public knowledge, passengers have repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to take on would-be hijackers.*** Also, TSA suck at their job and routinely miss things they’re supposed to catch.****

In return for this delightful mix of superfluity and incompetence we get treated like petty criminals for having had the gall to purchase a ticket on a commercial airliner. I am sympathetic to the fact that civilian airspace is a public good, and that the Federal government can reasonably claim an interest in regulating its use. But buying a plane ticket should not constitute probable cause, at least in part because…the probability of a terrorist attack on commercial aviation is so damn low. It shouldn’t be probably cause because literally, mathematically, it’s not.

And yet we’ve countenanced the creation of a vast government agency and its continued intrusion on citizens’ privacy (and in some cases 4th Amendment rights; also, how on earth is this a legal thing? Riding a bus now is grounds for a search?) because politically nobody has the balls to stand up and say, “TSA is ineffective, wasteful, a gross over-extension of Federal authority, and it should be shut down. Shutting it down might make flying in the United States slightly more unsafe, though this is almost surely false, but even if it does we should still do it – the chances of dying in a terrorist attack on a commercial airliner are infinitesimally small, with or without TSA.” Unfortunately, that’s not what Bob Johnson said, but he’s come a lot closer than most.*****

*To the best of my knowledge, Johnson’s original apology did not include the hyperlink
**For what it’s worth, this is not at all a general endorsement of Bob Johnson as a candidate for Congress. For one, I don’t live in Georgia; for another, though I can’t seem to get the Issues tab on his website to work, what gets highlighted elsewhere (pro-life, self-described “Christian conservative”) makes me think we probably do not share too many policy positions
***The reinforced cockpit doors are also an important addition
****They’re also pretty sanguine about me carrying on empty glass bottles (I have a collection, it’s cooler than it sounds), which seem like they could be made just as dangerous, if not more so, than a set of box cutters
*****It seems only fair to mention Rand Paul is a notable exception here – on his efforts to end the TSA I am fully supportive