Category Archives: Politico column

Homeland Security…at the Cost of Personal Liberty?

I used to love to travel. Flying never scared me. I vaguely recall the good old days when airport fears included lost passports, arrival at the wrong terminal, and running out of fuel over the Atlantic Ocean.

Since that infamous day–September 11, 2001–air travel, and the fears associated with it, have radically changed.

A new breed of concerns and escalated suspicions have emerged. I make flight plans more carefully these days, avoiding air travel if at all possible.

My shifted focus is neither on terrorism nor undetected box cutters, though. It is on the security forces created to protect travelers from such perceived threats; namely, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

The TSA is a branch of the United States Department of Homeland Security, created in 2002. The administration of former president George W. Bush spearheaded the department in response to the 9/11 attacks.

The federal government claims that the TSA’s objective is to promote increased security of American citizens, particularly against potential acts terrorism and aircraft hijacking.

On paper, this reads like a reasonable step in safe air travel.

However, in practice, that security has been imposed, under the guise of benevolent protection from evil foreigners determined to destroy the American way of life, in exchange for personal privacy and civil liberties.

Since its incipience, the TSA has:

• Reserved the right to open and search any passenger’s luggage, in the name of security screening. Such invasive procedures often involve breaking, cutting open or destroying locks; displacement and occasional theft of personal belongings; perusal of all packed items.

• Imposed strict sanctions of carry-on luggage, most notably containers containing more than 3.4 ounces of liquid or gel. Passengers at security checkpoints are regularly stripped of shampoo and conditioner, body lotion, cosmetics, perfume, beer, wine and other alcohol, peanut butter, drinking water and scores of other mundane fluids which used to be integral to any carry-on luggage.

• Enforced the pre-screening removal of belts, jewelry, and since the ‘shoe bomber’ incident in December 2001, footwear.

• Added new screening procedures November 2010, in response to the ‘underwear bomber’ who smuggled plastic explosives onto an airplane in Amsterdam in December 2009. The enhanced screening subjects passengers either to backscatter X-rays and millimeter wave scans, or full-body pat-downs. The former displays nude images of passengers’ bodies to TSA officers. The latter allows agents to touch all body parts of clothed passengers.

According to Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “We’re getting closer and closer to a required strip-search to board an airplane.”

The ACLU, a national non-profit organization which promotes the Constitutional rights of Americans, received over 900 passenger complaints about the TSA enhanced screening within the first month of mandatory pat-downs.

One of the most high-profile cases is that of Susie Castillo, crowned Miss USA in 2003. Castillo was traveling from Rio de Janeiro to Los Angeles, in April 2011. While changing planes in Dallas, Texas, Castillo objected to the electronic scanner and underwent the required pat-down.

In a self-made iPhone video, now posted on YouTube, Castillo tearfully describes her experience immediately after the pat-down. “[The TSA screener] actually felt, touched my vagina,” she says. “They’re making me choose to either be molested, because that’s what I feel like, or go through this machine that’s completely unhealthy and dangerous.”

In response, the TSA claimed that agents were simply doing their jobs. “We have reviewed this passenger’s screening experience and found that the officer followed proper procedures,” TSA spokeswoman Kristin Lee said.

Lee may be right. Individual TSA agents, for the most part, are obeying orders and following security protocol. The problem therein lies with the federal government imposing these measures. If employees accept such orders as business as usual, then the burden of defending personal rights and the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution lies with the people who are demanded by their government to relinquish privacy and comfort.

Acquiescence comes in the form of payment, as well as action. For the fiscal year of 2011, the TSA has a budget of over $8 billion USD. The government is using tax dollars–and a lot of them–to pay agents to invade the privacy of tax payers.

However, a backlash movement is growing more powerful with increased malcontent among travelers. In May 2011 a bill was unanimously passed in the Texas senate that challenges enhanced security measures enforced by Homeland Security.
The bill prohibits “anyone conducting searches to touch the anus, sexual organ, buttocks, or breast of another person” including through clothing [. . .] and searches “that would be offensive to a reasonable person.”

In turn, the Department of Justice notified Texas legislators that the anti-groping bill violates federal law and “could cause the Transportation Security Administration to cancel any flight or series of flights for which it could not ensure the safety of passengers and crew.”

The concern for protection against terrorism is understandable. However, Homeland Security is busy insisting on experimental body scans and invasive groping of anyone from small children and their teddy bears to rape victims to the elderly and disabled. Meanwhile, potential terrorists may find newer, more high tech ways to slip by undetected.

And I don’t feel any more protected than I did before; just more violated as my rights as an American are stripped, even if my clothing is not…yet.

The TSA may claim to be protecting passengers from terrorists, bombs, hijacking, more than three ounces of shampoo and other such threats to Homeland Security.

But, who is going to protect us from the TSA?

(This article originally appeared in the June 27, 2011 issue of The Politico magazine: http://the-politico.com/international/astrid-lium/homeland-security-at-the-cost-of-personal-liberty/)

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Gun Debate Creates More Tension Than Answers

Monday, January 28, 2013

The gun debate is front and center in the United States again. Mass shootings across the country dominated headlines in December.

Early in the month an NFL player shot and killed his girlfriend, and then himself. One week later, at an Oregon mall, a 22-year-old man shot three people, two of them fatally, before killing himself. Then, on December 14, a gunman in Newtown, Connecticut, killed his mother with her own firearm before continuing the rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The 20-year-old shooter killed twenty children and six women before turning a gun on himself.

That night, a plethora of Facebook updates referenced the shooting. Most of them offered condolences, thoughts, and prayers on their walls. Others Tweeted similar sentiments. Mainstream, fringe, and social media gave the event its nearly undivided attention and offered their political views. My Constitutionalist friends expressed concern about the government exploiting the shooting to disarm a nation. Gun-control advocates found those worries inappropriate in light of the death of twenty children. Some emailed jokes like these:

Q: How many NRA members does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: More guns.

I found this neither offensive nor particularly funny. I did find it an example of appealing to ridicule, a tactic employed to discredit an opponent’s argument with humor or mockery, not reason or debate. Such approaches can invoke laughter, but they do little to encourage open discussion and plausible solutions on which most people can agree.

The school shooting captivated the entire country, and reached others around the globe. When any one story captures worldwide attention, my cynical side asks, “what else is going on from which the government needs the public distracted?” As it turns out, the country is about to fall off something called a fiscal cliff.

Anyway, since Newtown’s tragedy, the small, affluent, New England town––virtually unknown to the rest of the country or world––has become a household name. And, predictably, everyone is talking guns. Like the political hot potatoes of abortion, capital punishment, and gay marriage, to name a few, the firearm issue is boiled down to two polarized camps: pro-gun rights vs. pro-gun control.

On one side of the oversimplified argument is America’s “gun culture,” a term coined by historian Richard Hofstadter in 1970. It conjures up caricatures of gun-toting, backwoods Republicans who like to hunt, donate money to the National Rifle Association (NRA), and staunchly defend the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms). They are usually older, white men who resemble Charlton Heston and Tom Selleck.

On the other side emerges the image of liberal pacifists in Blue States––several of them Hollywood actors who Tweet their political views––who want the government to crack down on crime and make the streets, malls, and schools safer for citizens. They deem the NRA an all-too-powerful lobbyist group full of right-wing nut jobs with guns.

I subscribe to neither of these groups. I suspect that most Americans, like me, can see valid points in both arguments, as well as seeking something more viable in between. But when I went hunting through articles, opinion pieces, and videos on this topic, what I found was a line of demarcation separating those two opponents. From Fox News and MSNBC to Alex Jones and Jesse Ventura to some dude in his basement filming himself for a YouTube video, only two forces emerged, no matter how articulate (or not): protect citizens’ civil liberties to arm themselves, or further restrict gun use to protect citizens.

In search of something that resonated with my more nuanced and complex views, what I found instead was a divided country, each side screaming their own perspective while ignoring the “opposition.” The closest thing I found to an argument that transcended the blind stone throwing was an opinion piece by CNN contributor Roland Martin.

In his December 28 article entitled “National gun ‘conversation’ mostly a waste of time,” Martin writes:

“The tragedy has allowed the usual suspects to declaim from one side or the other. It’s either pro-Second Amendment or restrict guns. Very little else has broken through to put this gun violence epidemic into the proper context.” He continues, “If we are going to keep saying, ‘let’s have a conversation,’ then by God let’s do it. Right now, we are seeing advocates against guns and for guns try to score points and demonize one another. That’s not a conversation. It’s an exercise in futility.”

One point on which everyone does agree is that what happened in Newtown (or Clackamas Town Center, Aurora movie theater, Columbine High School, or any other mass shooting) was tragic and should be avoided in the future. The approaches to working toward that end differ. The NRA suggests that more armed guards at schools can protect against shooters. Gun control supporters call for stricter gun laws, comparable to those in Europe and Australia.

In a country that thrives on buzz words like ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom,’ open discourse with varying viewpoints is to be expected, even encouraged. But I have yet to hear a variety of arguments. I have yet to see either side listen to the other. I have yet to come across a viable solution to this problem. It starts with a conversation, which requires both sides to listen. Then, maybe, more than two arguments can infiltrate the discussion.

This article was published in The Politico Magazine on 1/28/2013.

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February 8, 2013 · 2:53 am