Letter from a Protester: “TSA, Stop Warrantless Searches on the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority.”

This next letter comes from Tamarleigh. She sent me a letter about this protest taking place tomorrow, February 2, 2013. The Facebook page for the protest to end railway searches on the MBTA in Boton is here. Their official statement is as follows:

As local Bostonians we are determined to bring an end to the warrantless searches the TSA conducts on the MBTA. This policy flagrantly infringes upon our civil liberties and is in direct violation of both Article XIV of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the 4th Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. As long as the governor, the mayor, and the representatives of the Commonwealth permit the enforcement of this reprehensible policy, they are in direct contradiction of the constitutions they swore to uphold. We demand that every TSA checkpoint in the MBTA be discontinued at once.Taxpayer dollars have been ill-spent in the investment of this program. Maintaining these checkpoints in our transit system not only creates a hostile environment for tourists as well as locals, but also illuminates how, in this great time of need, our representatives are increasingly out of touch with the people, as demonstrated by their misguided actions. The desire and/or need to use public transportation does not constitute a search warrant in the slightest. All citizens are completely in their right to refuse any search without a warrant. We call upon everyone to pressure the state government to remove these TSA checkpoints immediately and insist that our representatives make more appropriate use of our money.

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My opinion on the TSA moving out to rail systems in this way? It’s silly. It’s more security theater. It’s a waste of taxpayer money. The TSA should be confined to airports and be happy they’re still tolerated there.

But over at TSA headquarters, they’ve been sitting around a conference room with PowerPoint slides of the wreckage from the Madrid train bombing in 2004 and London transit system bombing in 2005 for some time, predicting, quite accurately, that something bad will eventually be attempted on a train in the United States. Something malicious will happen in nearly every variety of crowded public space you can imagine, given enough time. It’s not a surprise; it’s human nature. It’s pure probability. It’s inevitable.

The question is how do we prepare for the eventuality, how much money do we spend to protect against the eventuality, and would it even be worth it to spend any money or compromise any freedom at all to defend against the eventuality.

In the case of thousands upon thousands of train and subway networks across the nation (along with the millions of other highly populated public spaces) being occasionally patrolled by a few thousand gadget-wielding random screeners looking at miroexpressions, I would say no, that’s not worth it. That’s like playing Whack-a-mole on a 3.5 million square-mile board, where 2 moles pop up once every 5 years for 30 minutes. It would make more sense to spend money trying to target the source of the moles (spend money on intelligence agencies or on lowering our dependence on foreign oil, not the TSA, if you really want to try to lower our chances of being hit by a terrorist act) than on blindly batting around hoping to scare off the moles.

This is pure Cost-Benefit Analysis, of course, on which there is a lot of great in-depth literature out there (Cass Sunstein, “Worst Case Scenarios,” is a good place to start).

Unfortunately, part of the whole cost-benefit analysis picture–the part that is on the TSA’s side– is our society’s irrational, panicky overreaction to extremely infrequent yet traumatic acts of violence. You can be sure that the day after something happened on a train, for instance, there would be a large media mob beaming headlines along the lines of “TSA: 8 Billion Dollars to Hassle Us About Snow Globes at Airports, But Where Were They at the Rail Station Yesterday?”

The best minds at TSA headquarters (knowing, I would hope, that they themselves are on a largely irrational mission) are acting preemptively with railway and public event checks, not really believing that they will be able to thwart or even deter an attack on one of the millions of targets available to would-be terrorists, but rather, in order to have a paper trail-backed official statement ready to counter the inevitable irrational outcry over their failure to prevent said attack. People are often irrational, society is often irrational. The world is often irrational. The TSA has mostly been, from the very beginning, a manifestation of the irrationality in most of us.

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t try to spread the message and get as many people on-board as possible to the basic truth: bad things sometimes happen in the world– it’s just one of the prices we pay as humans–and overreactive, senseless, emotionally driven responses to those things do us more harm than good, in the long run.

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