Is the TSA Fighting Terror, or Abetting It?

This week the ever-excellent aviation blogger (and commercial pilot) Patrick Smith posed the question: why haven’t Americans rebelled against the petty tyranny of the Transportation Safety Administration?

…one of the things that has always baffled and frustrated me is the lack of any organized protest against TSA by the airlines, the media or the traveling public. People complain, roll their eyes and maybe make a wisecrack or two, but there have been few formal calls for agency accountability. Groups like FlyersRights.org never miss a chance to exploit the latest tarmac stranding, but are mostly silent when it comes to the single biggest indignity of the air travel experience: concourse passenger screening.

I’d like to second Smith’s irritation, and go one further: are America’s transportation policies not fighting terrorism, but actually serving its ends?

There’s no question that the government’s intent is good. But as psychologists of fear know all too well, attempts to control fear are prone to what are known as “paradoxical effects.” Trying to quell anxiety can have the opposite result.

The complicated nature of fear came to the fore during World War II, when the German Luftwaffe bombed London night after night. Hitler’s goal was to terrify and demoralize the British, but that’s not what happened. Instead, Londoners grew used to the wail of the air-raid sirens, the ritual tramping down into the bomb shelter, the rumbling thuds of distant explosions. They became less afraid.

Britons living in the relative safety of the suburbs, on the other hand, experienced the reverse effect. As time went on, they grew increasingly terrified of German raids.

Yale psychologist Irving L. Janis, who studied the effects of bombing after the war, ascribed the difference to the twin psychological effects of “habituation” and “sensitization.” When we’re exposed to something frequently, we get used to it – habituated. A loud noise becomes less nerve-wracking; a scary animal becomes less fearsome. But when we only experience something intermittently, we can instead become sensitized to the fear.

Having spent a decade fruitlessly waiting for a promised follow-up to 9-11, Americans find themselves in a similar position to London’s suburbanites. We constantly hear about the terrible threat, but we never experience it. Our nerves remain on edge.

Short of encouraging more attacks, there’s not much that can be done about that problem. But in other ways, the Bush and Obama administrations have missed many opportunities to stiffen America’s courage, and indeed have actively taken steps that paradoxically heighten the public’s anxiety.

For instance, the authorities have given the populace no way to take steps against the threat. During World War II, British civilians were given roles to play in the war effort, such as collecting scrap metal and rolling bandages. Taking positive action is a well-known antidote to fear. Here in the 2000s, American civilians have been given nothing to do. Famously, when asked by concerned citizens what they could do to contribute to the cause after 9-11, President Bush suggested that they “Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”

Similarly, the government has provided little concrete information about the threats. During the Blitz, air-raid sirens warned Londoners exactly when German bombers were about to appear. This information allowed them to take steps to protect themselves. Vague information, in contrast, provides no way to get a grip on the situation and so only increases anxiety. Since 2006, the Department of Homeland Security has kept its threat level for air travel at “High (Orange),” signifying a high risk of attack, but has not said why the threat is at that level. There’s no practical way to respond.

The aim of a terror attack is to create a multiplier effect, to provoke a response in one’s enemy that is far out of proportion to the actual danger. A biological analogy would be a disease that triggers a host’s immune system to over-respond and wreak havoc on its own body. In that context, it’s dismaying to contemplate the response to the Nigerian underwear bomber’s efforts last December. In physical terms, his bombing attempt was a failure – the only damage he caused were minor burns to two other passengers and third-degree burns to himself. But in psychological terms, his action had a huge ripple effect. Holiday travel across the country, and even overseas, was thrown into chaos. Millions of passengers were forced to submit passively to a slew of often baffling security measures. Worse, the semi-dormant notion of an al Qaeda threat to the domestic United States was been prodded back to life.

The more America responds to incidents in this way, the more it plays into the hands of those who would cause it harm. If the Obama administration is serious about battling terror and restoring a sense of normality to America, it should end the long-held practices of the TSA and start fighting the battle as it really is: a struggle not of bombs, but of emotion. The way for a people to defeat terror is by tapping their reserves of courage. To get there, they must be led. It’s time to fundamentally reform the TSA — or better yet, abolish it.