The killing of Osama bin Laden

As the media launches it’s way into the play-by-play analysis of the Osama bin Laden raid, I’m left here struggling to figure out how I feel about the whole thing. I have come to the conclusion that I feel the same about bin Laden’s death as I do about the towers coming down on 9/11.

Brace yourself; it’s not anything an American living in a Red State will ever admit in public.

I do not feel fear. I do not feel joy. I do not feel any great swell of Americanism that compels me to rush out into the street shouting “U-S-A, U-S-A!” at the top of my voice or run to WalMart to buy the largest flag I can find and fly it from the highest flagpole.

I do not feel like anything life-altering has happened.

I do feel a bit ashamed that we are celebrating the death of someone, even if that someone chose to live his life committing evil and fostering evil and hatred. I do not feel happy or sad that Osama bin Laden is dead but I do feel sad that we are celebrating it with the same sort of cheering one reserves for the Super Bowl.

I feel dismayed that we have created an entire generation that has grown up in fear of terrorism and suspicious of each other instead of steeped in optimism and hope. Osama bin Laden did not do that to us; we did that to ourselves to win elections and to grab the reins of power.

I feel a massive tug of manipulation as the media work desperately to shape the “national mood” to fit a narrative instead of reporting it. I feel this event — like the 9/11 event — is being treated by the media like a book tour, a movie premiere or a CD drop complete with PR spin. They raise questions and then answer them, then treat the answers as if that was the news. Then, they report on what they heard based on what they said.

I feel like we’re being told how to feel by the warm-up guy in preparation for an upcoming election show. If we play our part, we’ll be rewarded with attention. If not, we’ll be ignored as fringe. Problem is, there is a lot of “fringe” out here.

I wish media would have stuck to a headline “Osama bin Laden Dead” instead of “Killed.” “Dead” states a face whereas “killed” injects opinion, conjecture and value judgments.

On Sept 11, 2011, the rest of the world was besieged by earthquakes, landslides and massive flooding. I know this because I had access to the AP Newswire all day at the Dayton Daily News. I had to ignore those stories and search instead for some angle, some news on the 9/11 story. These other stories went almost unreported for nearly a week as media crafted new narratives each day around the 9/11 story. And when that failed, CNN ran taped loops of the towers coming down and reconstructed timelines, much as they are doing now with the raid plans.

On May 1, 2011, tens of thousands of citizens in the South are still homeless as a result of horrific tornados. Fires rage in Texas. Oil still washes up from the Gulf. Gas prices are out of control at $4.19/gallon locally. Health care cost continue to rise at twice the rate of inflation. Housing prices continue to fall. Wages are stagnant. Unemployment is still high.

I think we need to start not only thinking for ourselves, but feeling for ourselves as well. I think we need to start embracing real feelings about things that matter more deeply rather that co-opting boogie-man feelings media report we should have.

Photo source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Osama_bin_Laden_portrait.jpg

Why we are engineered for another 9/11; the TSA is working backwards

The media and blogosphere is going nuts with this recent hulla-balloo over the TSA pat-downs and full-body scanners. In news segment after segment, after the guest tirades about lack of privacy, dignity, pornography scan and whatever else is the convenient bumper sticker claim of the hour, the anchor eventually asks the guest, “What would you do differently?”

The question generally sends the guest into a sputtering mutter and the anchor then makes his/her point, “See? You have nothing. This is the best system we have even though it is imperfect, so sit down and shut up. We all want to be safe.”

Only that’s not really true.

All the TSA did after 9/11 is replace a patch-work of private security guards of questionable authority with standardized, uniformed TSA agents with unchallengeable authority and a McDonald-ized set of procedures. All airports must be set up a standard way. All interactions with passengers must be conducted in this manner with this script. All escalations are handled by a supervisor, here’s how passengers proceed through, here is how to wand, etc, etc.

When there is a procedure and a script, employees to fill the jobs are easy to find, easy to process, easy to train, cheap to pay and cheap to replace. It is like changing out a bolt in a piece of machinery. That is how we approached the job at hand; fill 65,000 jobs in less than a year. Instead of asking ourselves why we needed 65,000 TSA agents, we just marched forward to replace the patchwork system we had into a uniform one.

It’s how we handle anything that needs mass-processing in this country. And it is prone to malicious injection because it is standardized and predictable. A smart man who happens to be a retired Dayton police officer told me something right after 9/11 I’ll never forget. He said the minute we go to a national police system is when we become vulnerable. We may find it easier to communicate and coordinate, but it is easy to inject a virus and mole into a system. It is almost impossible to do the same with patchwork.

What I would do differently
Inject unpredictability into the airport environment. That helpless lost young man you helped who couldn’t remember where he parked? TSA agent. That pretty chatty girl who was in the elevator who wanted to know where you were flying off to? TSA agent. That grandmother whose cell phone battery just died and she asked to borrow your cell phone to call her niece? TSA agent. That frazzled businessman who was running late for his flight and wanted to know what time it was? TSA agent. That college student who thought your iPad was really cool, where did you get it and can I see it? TSA agent. That blind man with the dog at the duty-free store who asked you if he was holding a bottle of Absolut? TSA agent. The dog too. That hipster who liked your shoes and where did you get them? TSA agent.

All watching you, all asking you questions to determine how you react in situations that are unpredictable. And all either clearing you or escalating you before you reach security and even after you pass through.

And we all pass through metal detectors set up really high and we put our loose stuff in bins like we did before. We are waved through by cheerful uniformed guards but it is all just a show. Only the passengers who have been escalated past a certain comfort point are channeled through a special “high risk” area where their tickets, documentation, luggage and person is more thoroughly searched. Most of us blithely proclaim the United States is the most free country to walk around in. No planes are highjacked, because we all trust each other. That is how we live with freedom in America.

Or at least that is what the TSA wants us to believe. Just like Walt Disney makes everyone believe the streets on the Happiest Place on Earth are never littered with trash.

We would need less than half of the thousands we employ already with the TSA. We would have to commit to hiring and training people to be really good actors and profilers (not racial profilers) and we would have to be willing to inject new scenarios and outcomes every day into the airports. We would have to pay these people well. We may even be able to save a few from a life as a greeter at WalMart (who can spot a lie better than someone who has raised a teen-ager? AARP, you listening?)

We’d have to be committed to the real security of human beings by applying a human solution, not a blind faith in technology with a promise of automated safety. A system is predictable and predictability can be injected and highjacked.

What about putting people in charge again scares us most?

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Real airport security is very low tech

With all the news media chattering on about this latest round of terrorism with flight 253 and the guy with a bad stomach in the restroom, we are seeing the latest group of pundits advocating for more technology, full-body scans, etc, etc.

Oh, brother.

Real airport security is far more low-tech than that. Here is the formula, in case anyone at the Department of Homeland Security or TSA wants to read it and maybe do something effective rather than expensive and whiz-bang.

Train TSA agents to be charming and firm
If you need some inspiration for this, watch Road House. “Be nice” was Dalton’s direction to his staff. And nice works, until you’re told to not be nice. In that case, effective, clean take-down is far more effective in controlling crowds than is a wild display of guns, badges and shouting.

Ask simple, rapid-fire questions in a dispassionate manner at checkpoints and randomly in the gate area. Where were you born, what day is it, what city are you in, how long will you be here, what is your mother’s name. And stare the passenger straight in the eye as you are asking and force the passenger to look back. If cultural differences prevent them from holding a stare, the passenger should be reminded that looking the agent directly in the eye is a requirement for travel. But gently and firm.

Train TSA agents to be unemotional and not take any comment or question personally. Really, it can be done and it is very effective. The Marine Corps does it every day. So does the Queen’s Guard.

Pay TSA well. Train them and expect high-quality, consistent results. Discipline emotional responses. Right now, they are seen by most Americans as over-zealous mall cops who are quickly prone to anger and an excessive display of authority which they will wield for petty reasons, especially in smaller market airports like Dayton, Ohio.

Use dogs
Nothing makes a smuggler more nervous than a sniffing German Shepherd walking in and out of the boarding gates sniffing at every piece of luggage. And since dogs sniff at crotches as part of their nature, you get the added benefit of that without training, which would have come in handy for this last round of explosives. And use a lot of them. Be everywhere, all the time. Dogs don’t take anything personally, don’t profile based on race, gender or religion and are pretty darn accurate. Taking them for a 3-4 hour walk and a sniff is their idea of heaven.

And, after all the passengers have boarded the plane, take the dog down and up the aisle one more time in the plane. The dang thing will be just sitting on the tarmac anyway, so why not use a few extra minutes for security.

And nobody messes with the dog. Nobody.

Don’t dress in para-military garb
The dog handler and all security past the checkpoint should be dressed in simple, plain clothes but that also makes it clear they are the controlling authority. They should also be armed, but not obviously so. An over-armed security agent in an area that is supposed to be secure just says “I am more scared of being attacked than I am of defending myself.”

Dress in para-military garb
And carry very big sticks. Any area before the security check point should have armed guards very obviously and strategically placed. When you are entering into an airport terminal, there should be a “no-shit, this is serious” tone set from the start.

Airport insecurity is a human problem, created by human beings for the purpose of inflicting harm on other human beings. Pushing more technology at the problem just makes solving the real causes of the problem more complicated and gives passengers a false sense of security.

*For the record, I am not a security expert, but I do watch people in airports and other public places both here and abroad and can make judgments based on observed behaviors. Eventually, a pattern emerges.