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Posts Tagged ‘tsa’

You know when Irish rock band U2 released an album titled How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb?

You remember how they were then arrested and spent several years in Guantanamo Bay under suspicion of possessing illegal fissile material and intent to tamper with restricted government nuclear facilities?

No, you probably don’t. One reason why you don’t remember this is that nobody ever really suspected them of any kind of dangerous or unlawful activities relating to weapons of mass destruction.

It may have been possible that this album title was a surprisingly overt expression of a malicious intent to commit a terrorist act, made by individuals whom nobody has ever had any other reason to suspect.

But it’s more likely that they had their own, more benign reasons for using that particular combination of words, in a way that wasn’t quite literal.

In fact it’s a lot more likely. It probably never even occurred to anyone to weigh up the respective probabilities. They didn’t even waste time investigating the potential nuclear threat, because it was so vanishingly remote.

Unfortunately, that wisdom is something we seem to have lost in recent years.

Otherwise, when a British guy called Leigh joked on Twitter about “diggin’ Marilyn Monroe up” and his plans to “destroy America”, he and the friend he was travelling with wouldn’t have been handcuffed and detained overnight on arrival in the US before being denied entry and sent back home.

Even after five hours of questioning (and a night sharing a cell with Mexican drug dealers), they had still failed to explain the notion of “humour” to airport officials. Their interrogators didn’t find any grave-digging shovels in the tourists’ possession (and yes, apparently they checked), or anything else to suggest that they might have been doing anything other than hyperbolically discussing their party plans. But it was still deemed safest not to let them in.

The phrase I’ve heard that most pithily sums up the problem here, to my mind, is “Suspicion Fail“. The criteria for valid suspicion outlined in that post make sense: you should only view a person’s behaviour as suspicious if it is consistent with “bad” behaviour (such as intent to commit a crime), and inconsistent with innocent behaviour.

In the case of the “destroy America” tweets, these guidelines were not followed with any competence. Anyone who understands anything at all about the way people talk in casual conversation, and the flippancy and inconsequentiality that characterises a significant proportion of Twitter usage, could tell you that this guy’s tweets were entirely consistent with someone innocent of any terrorist intent.

If you are determined to take things that literally, all the time, regardless of the context, in the hope of catching the very occasional terrorist, then if you cast your net widely enough you are inevitably going to achieve a false positive rate which does more damage to society than any atrocity you manage to prevent.

And by the way, if you think what happened is made slightly less unconscionable because the joke tweet in question “wasn’t funny”, then congratulations, you don’t understand anything about anything.

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– Because it’s the kind of thing I often say I want to see happen, but don’t often expect: The Rhode Island State Council of Churches came out in support of atheist challenger of religious privilege Jessica Ahlquist, and condemned the treatment she received from many other Christians, in a press conference that seemed to go rather well.

– I’m really not sure how these numbers are calculated. I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that hospital cleaners contribute as valuably as they do, but I thought I wanted to be a tax accountant and now it turns out I’m apparently the worst person in the world.

21,000 people aren’t allowed to fly to, from, or over the US. Why? Who the hell knows. Government says so.

– The US Director of National Intelligence explains why we should be so frightened of Iran: If they think we’re attacking them, they might attack us! Blimey. We’d better attack them before they can attack us, then. Jingoistic foreign bastards.

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– No, it’s not Blue Monday. And if you’re using that nonsense as anything other than an excuse to break out some New Order LPs and go on a nostalgia binge, you’re doing it wrong.

– The TSA has compiled a list of its best “catches” – that is, people detained by their security staff at airports – in 2011. The ratio of thwarted terrorists to harassed innocent citizens… may surprise you.

– Just the words “arrested on secret evidence” should make this seem like a seriously bad idea, even before you get to the torture of a humanitarian aid worker.

– Has your memory ever turned out to be unreliable, even though you swear something happened the way you replay it in your mind? Let the False Memory Archive know.

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– A teenager spent most of the money in his bank account. Then, by doing nothing but letting the remaining balance sit there, he went from having $4.85 to owing $229.10, due to fees and penalties accrued within two weeks. I can’t imagine what sort of lesson to draw from this except further confirmation that banks’ policies are specifically intended to screw money out of the poor.

– “After studying and cataloging 522 texts, Boyd concluded that Genesis 1 can be classified as narrative with a probability of virtually one.” That’s adorable.

– For all the out-of-touch wackiness NaturalNews is usually crammed with, not all of their priorities are way out of line. While their ideas about a government fluoride conspiracy might be nothing but paranoia, their attitude to the TSA is unsettlingly in line with my own. A 17-year-old girl was recently detained and missed her flight because she was carrying a purse with a gun design on it.

– The folk at Age of Autism, on the other hand, are yet to display any such fortuitous stopped-clock correctness, to my knowledge. They’re still going on about Andrew Wakefield. Hey, did you know that you can take a study with a tiny sample size, which was fraudulently conducted, whose results have been refuted and never replicated in multiple studies, and which has been formally retracted by the journal that published it, but still have this study be “valid and scientifically sound” by simply declaring it so without making any effort to rebut the numerous criticisms? It works for anti-vaccinationists!

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While I was offline for a month, I kept a note of any links and news stories worth commenting on. Now that I’m back, I’m aiming to post two short items a day here, about stuff that happened during my online absence, until I’ve cleared the backlog. This is one of those.


Aggregator of awesomeness Boing Boing has been doing a pretty thorough job of documenting the exploits of the TSA in recent months, highlighting many examples of how illiberal, unnecessary, awkward, expensive, humiliating, time-consuming, pointless, and downright authoritarian and abusive the US government’s attempts to crack down on terrorism can be.

On top of all that, it looks like they’re not even effective.

We can’t know how many terror attacks, potentially on a scale that could have dwarfed 9/11, were foiled while security staff were drenching a retired cancer patient in urine, taking naked pictures of passengers with untested equipment, stealing thousands of dollars, planting white powder in people’s bags as a prank, frisking five-year-olds, or just enjoying some good ol’-fashioned ball-grabbing.

But we also can’t know exactly how many .40 calibre loaded guns and twelve-inch razor blades people have walked onto planes with in spite of all this.

If I had to guess, I’d say the second number might be a little bigger than the first.

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