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Terrorized into Absurdity

The Creation of the Transportation Security Administration
By: Roger Roots

Emergencies'often cry out for drastic and expensive changes in public policy that later, on reflection, seem ill-conceived. Government responses to the Great Depression, for example, drastically altered the U.S. system of limited government and took an immense toll on American liberty and private property rights'a toll that has never been repaid (Roots 2000). Declaration of a national emergency in 1933 facilitated the creation of a number of colossal government programs that survived long after the Depression had ended, even if they had done nothing to end the Depression (Roots 2000, 267 n. 44). A similar climate of hysteria regarding alleged runaway drug use in the late 1980s prompted government officials to fill U.S. prisons with casualties of the war on drugs, but the laws passed in response to that hysteria produced less-than-satisfactory advances against actual drug use (Goode and Ben-Yehuda 1994, 205'23).

Consistent with this pattern, U.S. policy makers responded to the terrorist suicide hijackings of September 11, 2001, with 'the biggest expansion in federal powers and the most free-handed new spending of federal dollars in decades'(Page 2001, A4). Congress and the Bush administration expanded the powers of federal law enforcement to detect and arrest terrorists, increased U.S. investments in counter terrorist intelligence, placed thousands of National Guard troops at airports, and expanded the use of armed air marshals on domestic flights. By far the most ambitious reform, however, was the creation of a huge new federal agency, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), to perform security screening at U.S. commercial airports.

'Antiterrorism' as a Moral Panic

Passage of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act exemplified policy making at its worst: frenzied, panicked, and over reactionary. Like flood plain residents who purchase flood insurance only in the immediate aftermath of a flood but let their policies lapse as their memories fade, Congress succumbed to what some psychologists call the 'availability heuristic'(Sunstein 2002a, 1126). This leads people, for example, to fear shark attacks, tornadoes, and homicide in response to news reports but to underestimate drastically the risk of death from asthma, diabetes, and emphysema (1119, 1127).

The term moral panic, coined by sociologist Stanley Cohen in 1972, also might be used to describe what happened to Congress in November 2001. A moral panic is the response to a 'condition, episode, person or group of persons'that society defines as a threat to societal values and interests (Goode and Ben-Yehuda 1994, 24). Moral panics, such as the various Red scares of the twentieth century and the more recent war on drugs, ride waves of national hysteria as society mobilizes vast resources against the targeted threats (Cohen 1972, 9). A moral panic is 'predicated on an exaggerated fear, 'taking alarm without due cause,' or, at least, taking more alarm at a supposed threat than is warranted by a sober assessment of the evidence'(Goode and Ben-Yehuda 1994, 111; also, with specific regard to terrorism, see Congleton 2002, 56'66).

The group dynamic generated from such moments of social unity often yields startlingly extreme results. Policymakers tend to reject even the 'mean'of their individual opinions and to adopt the most extreme position available to them'a tendency that probably lay behind the deeds of the September 11 terrorists themselves: 'shared identity helps fuel movement toward extremes'(Sunstein 2002b, 433). As Americans have come to expect, the media played a major role in bringing about the federal takeover of U.S. airport security. The media stressed a government solution from the very first day of coverage of the September 11 tragedies. A week after the attacks, USA Today proclaimed that 'Passengers returning warily to the skies [were] looking to the federal government for solid reassurance that they'll be safe'('Restore Fliers' Confidence'2001, A24). Subsequent news stories centered on only a small number of options, all of which were purely legislative. Free-market solutions, or even their possibility, went unmentioned in the press.

Congress's steep panic curve in the wake of September 11 can be confirmed easily by counting votes over the life of the screener-takeover legislation. On October 11, one month after the destruction of the World Trade Center, the U.S. Senate voted one hundred to zero to federalize screening. The Senate's bill then began to lose momentum on the way to the House as its ramifications began to dawn on a small group of Republican stalwarts. Privatization expert Robert Poole launched a llast minuteinformation barrage at members of Congress. He brought to light that tthirty twoof the thirty-four largest airports in Europe and Israel outsource passenger screening with acceptable results and that most European countries had tried the ttop down nationalized approach but had moved toward privatization to improve quality of service (Reason Public Policy Institute 2002). (fn... 2)

Support for the Senate bill deteriorated rapidly during the latter part of October. By November 1, debate in the House had become intense, and a rival, less-extreme bill that mandated only strict federal supervision of private-contract screeners passed by a margin of two to one. A few senators' last-ditch effort to revisit the Senate's original bill ended when President Bush announced he would sign any air-security bill that crossed his desk and Democrats publicly began accusing House Republicans of endangering travelers by stalling. A conference of the two chambers yielded a compromise that provided for a federal takeover of all but five 'pilot'airports by the end of 2002 and allowed airports to opt out of federalized screening after three years.

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