Thursday, December 31, 2009

Proportionate Response

Over at Slate, William Saletan shows once again why he's not to be taken seriously.

In his breathless, tough-guy prose, he lays out why we should all be happy to let TSA do full-body scans. Terrorists can hide bombs anywhere! We're not checking people's crotches, so that's what they'll do! Won't someone think of the children? This is keeping us safe! OK, sure, the TSA said they wouldn't use this on everyone and they've already shown that to be a lie, but hey, the TSA is keeping us safe! It's for our own good! If you're one of those mamby-pamby privacy types, then you just don't understand what a scary dangerous world it is, like tough-guy Saletan!

Okay, so I'm paraphrasing. A bit.

Do the numbers. Fly 20 times a year and your chances of being directly involved in a terrorist incident is about the same as getting hit by lightning that year. Fly daily for the rest of your life, and the risk goes up to almost a tenth of one percent. The marginal utility of forcing everyone to be scanned simply isn't worth it. (There's also the problem of false positives, which Saletan, conveniently, disregards, simply assuming 100% accuracy and 100% discrimination on the part of the technology and the operators.)

The Detroit incident doesn't show the failure of the scanners, it shows the failure of intelligence coordination. If they're already at the airport with explosives, it's already too late. This is theater, not security. But it's easier to install scanners and make it look like you're doing something than it is to actually do something. Particularly when it's something as hard to do and to get right as security. But the full-body scanners are analogous to searching for lost keys by looking under the streetlight because the light's better there.

Yes, there are bad people who want to do us harm. But Saletan has let himself be terrorized (which is, after all, the point of terrorism) into falling for the Yes, Minister fallacy: We must do something. This is something. Therefore we must do this. Instead of recognizing that there are risks, we have to bear them, such is life, he's cowering under the bed and begging TSA to make him feel secure, whether there's any basis for that feeling in reality or not.

Road accidents kill almost 40,000 people per year. That's about one 9/11 per month. But we haven't declared a "war on cars."

No comments: