Three ways of looking at full body scanners

Cards on the table:  having experienced one first-hand, I hate the new full body scanners being used at airports.  I hate that their existence allows TSA officials to bark additional orders at me like I'm a five-year old.  I hate having to hold my hands up in a surrender position to be scanned. I hate having to empty every f***ing piece of lint from my pockets before going through one.  I hate that they have lengthened and not shortened the time it takes to get through security.  I hate the fact that other countries with equally acute terrorist concerns are not nearly as physically invasive in their security screenings.   I hate the sneaking suspicion I have that the scanners are merely a massive exercise in kabuki security theater designed to alleviate the psychological fears of some travelers.  I hate that the official response to these complaints boils down to, "we face a determined enemy."  I hate the stupid reassurances that the "imaging technology that we use cannot store, export, print or transmit images," when, whoops, it turns out that this has already happened.  I hate the ways in which these scanners make it so easy to mock the United States

The thing is, right now I'm in the distinct minority of Americans. 

The above chart is the result of a CBS poll released yesterday (which also found a majority of Americans to oppose racial profiling) on the question of full-body scanners in airports.  The results speak for themselves. 

Or do they?  Here are a couple of different ways of interpreting these results. 

1)  Big friggin' surprise.  It's pretty easy to find U.S. public opinion polls demonstrating majority support for homeland security measures ranging from crackdowns on illegal immigration to  torture enhanced interrogration techniques.  As I've said in the past, when it comes to homeland security, the average American has few qualms about strengthening the national security state.  This latest poll is just one more data point supporting that argument. 

2)  Oh, you wait... you just waitNate Silver ably rounds up the rages against these machines coming from angry unions, pissed-off bloggers, and generally cantankerous individuals surreptitiously taping their pat-downs

What do these vocal members of the minority have in common?  They've all had to fly recently.  Silver posits that as more Americans face the indignity of these scanners, the poll numbers will start to change.  Well see.

3)  New Elite, meet Real America.  Silver also points out that a minority of travelers comprise a majority of actual air travel:

A study by the market-research firm Arbitron found, for instance, that frequent fliers — those who take 4 or more round trips per year — account for the 57 percent majority of all air travel, even though they make up just 18 percent of air travelers and something like 7 percent of the overall American population.

At least one past survey has identified differences in perceptions about airport security procedures between frequent and occasional fliers. This was a 2007 Gallup poll, which found that while just 26 percent of occasional travels were dissatisfied with airport security, the level rose to 37 percent among those who fly more frequently.

What I think we need to know then, is how those who have actually traveled through an airport that uses the full-body scanners feel about them — particularly if they’re people who fly frequently and are therefore going to bear the burden of any inconvenience, embarrassment, invasion of privacy or health risk brought on by the new technology.

Well... maybe.  Silver wants to prioritize the preferences of frequent travelers over other Americans.  To be fair to the pro-scanner position, however, it's not just the people who board planes who are affected the consequences of homeland security failures.  I'm not convinced that the opinions of grounded Americans shouldn't apply. 

There's a deeper cultural question, however.  There's an awful lot of resentment welling up in the United States against "elites."  Defining just who is in the elite and who is in "Real America" is an inexact science.  I can't help but wonder, however, if frequent air travel is the perfect Sorting Hat that separates the elites (i.e., the frequent travelers) from the masses (i.e., everyone else).  [UPDATE:  Adam Serwer makes this point as well:  "The TSA's new passenger-screening measures just happen to fall on the political and economic elites who can make their complaints heard. It's not happening to those scary Arabs anymore. It's happening to 'us.'"  See also Seth Masket and Kevin Drum on this point.]

This isn't necessarily a partisan divide -- conservative elites appear to be just as frosted with the TSA as liberals.  Body scanners are an issue that only animates the hostility of elites, however.  Real America couldn't give a flying fig one way or the other -- except if National Op-out Day gets them mad when they're traveling because of even longer security lines.  But I think it's a better than 50/50 chance that they'll be angrier at the opt-outers than the TSA employees. 

Maybe the scanners will quickly disappear in the face of elite protests.  Or maybe it means that some clever populist will seize on this issue as a way to talk about out-of-touch elites again. 

Clearly, I hope it's #2, but I don't know.  With travel season upon us during the next six weeks, we'll see..... 

Daniel W. Drezner

Your admission of error for the day

The only thing I dislike more than admitting I'm wrong is admitting that Spencer Ackerman was kinda sorta right.

Cautiously in March and then more confidently in July, I predicted that new START was going to be ratified.  Right now, however, Josh Rogin reports that the odds don't look so hot:

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ), the key Republican vote in the drive to ratify the New START treaty, said Tuesday he doesn't believe the treaty should be voted on this year.

"When Majority Leader Harry Reid asked me if I thought the treaty could be considered in the lame duck session, I replied I did not think so given the combination of other work Congress must do and the complex and unresolved issues related to START and modernization," Kyl said in a statement. "I appreciate the recent effort by the Administration to address some of the issues that we have raised and I look forward to continuing to work with Senator Kerry, DOD, and DOE officials." ?

Kyl spoke with Defense Secretary Robert Gates about it last week. A possible meeting between Kyl, Biden, Gates, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in the works and could happen on Wednesday. The treaty was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by a vote of 14 to 4 on Sept. 16, and is awaiting a vote on the Senate floor.

The Washington Post reported that the White House is offering an additional $4.1 billion for nuclear facilities. This latest offer comes on top of the other promises related to nuclear modernization, which have a price tag totaling over $80 billion, that the administration has offered in an effort to win over Senate Republicans.

I thought Kyl was making some not unreasonable requests back in the summer, but as near as I can read the Obama administration had pretty much given him what he wanted. 

It's possible that the treaty will be ratified in the next Congress, though that's a tougher road, and there's now some bad blood between Kyl and the administration to work away. 

Substantively, the treaty itself is not a nothingburger, but it's not that big a deal either.  There are two implications that flow from Kyl's decision, however.  First, he's given the Russians a great excuse to become even more obsteperous.  As Bob Kagan pointed out earlier this month:

Few men are more cynical players than Vladimir Putin. One can well imagine Putin exploiting the failure of New START internally and externally. He will use it to stir more anti-Western nationalism, further weakening an already weak Medvedev and anyone else who stands for a more pro-Western approach. He will use it as an excuse to end further cooperation on Iran. He will certainly use it to win concessions from Europeans who already pander to him, charging that the Americans have destroyed the transatlantic rapprochement with Russia and that more concessions to Moscow will be necessary to repair the damage. There's no getting around it: Failure to pass START will help empower Putin.

Second, even if START passes eventually, this little episode, combined with the endless ongoing negotiations over KORUS, are highlighting the massive transaction costs involved with trying to negotiate any hard law arrangement with the United States.  The rest of the world is now recalculating the cost-benefit ratio of doing business with the U.S. government. 

Anyway, the real point of this post is that I was wrong... again.  Let the pillorying in the comments section begin.