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A CONFLUENCE OF POLITICS AND SECURITY
By Joe Brancatelli
November 4, 2010 -- What are the odds, d'ya think? Mail-bomb parcels are found on planes in England and Dubai just as Secure Flight begins in the United States even as the TSA imposes rough-you-up patdowns if you "opt out" of their "nudeoscope" full-body scanners. And all this happens just as America goes to the polls for the mid-year elections.

What we got here, fellow flyers, is confluence and maybe we can explain it all by starting backwards, with the elections. Specifically, the election in my part of the world, NY-19 in the jargon of the election wonks.

For the past four years, New York's 19th Congressional District has been represented by John Hall. He first won the seat, a small town/suburban/rural district well north of New York City, back in 2006, when Democrats were sweeping out dozens of Republicans. The incumbent then, the right-leaning Sue Kelly, was well-liked during her time in office. And the left-leaning Hall, who many remember as the front man of the hit-making 1970s music group Orleans, has been well-liked during his two terms.

Hall got clocked on Tuesday by Nan Hayworth, a Republican I don't know anything about except for what she claims in her radio ads. I'd say she was carried home by the Republican tide that swamped 60 other Democratic Congresspeople except for this little tidbit: In beating Hall on Tuesday, Hayworth polled around 100,000 votes, about 15,000 fewer than the Republican candidate registered in losing to Hall in 2008. Hall got only about 90,000 votes on Tuesday compared to 165,000 when he was reelected in 2008. Ninety thousand voters in NY-19 stayed home on Tuesday and more than 80 percent of them were apparently Hall supporters.

Me, I voted for Hall, but I say this in advance to those who will surely complain about the staunchly conservative Hayworth when she invariably does something they don't like: Shut up. You had your chance and you stayed home. Us 190,000 who voted made the choice.

Which loops us back to Secure Flight, the body scanners, the opt-out patdowns and the TSA. You unhappy with any of these things? Speak up. Call your Congressperson, new or lame duck. Complain. Demand action. Or forever hold your peace.

It goes without saying that bureaucracies can't be voted out like politicians. In fact, the bureaucracies depend on that. Moreover, bureaucracies try to force us to adjust our behavior to accommodate their needs. That's why the TSA has instituted the extra-rough patdowns--the front-of-the-hand probing of your privates and the like--just as the controversial full-body image scanners are coming into general use. They figure if they make the alternative to the full-body scanners unpleasant--And what's more unpleasant than having your privates publicly probed?--you'll meekly accept the scanners.

You shouldn't. If these scanners bother you, either for medical (the radiation) or privacy (the pictures they generate are pretty revealing) reasons, opt out. If enough of you opt out and demand a patdown, airport checkpoints will grind to a halt and the TSA will have to rethink their procedures. If you get roughly handled and enough of you complain about the treatment to your Congressperson, change will come.

My good friend Joe Sharkey, the business-travel columnist at The New York Times, wrote a piece this week detailing his first experience with the current regime at body-image checkpoints. He's not happy. But Joe is honest: For him, it's a matter of respect. It's a matter of respect for a lot of us who got beat on--physically, emotionally, intellectually--by the nuns in our grade-school years. Our backs go up when people in uniforms and titular authority try to push us around.

But I know a lot of you have the legitimate medical and privacy objections. And I also know that a lot of you talk the talk, but refuse to walk the walk. Many of you are like the JoeSentMe reader who's been hammering me for months because he thinks I've been a TSA apologist. Yet when he had an up close and personal experience with the body imagers two weeks ago, he wrote me another E-mail.

"Nothing to it," he said. "No big deal at all. Got no problem with them."

Yeesh, I thought. So much for me being a TSA apologist

To be honest, I find myself oddly agnostic on these matters. Eighteen months ago, I said that I had no problem giving the TSA my Secure Flight information. In fact, I printed the same data in a column just to prove how innocuous I thought it was. And I'm not necessarily bothered by these body imagers. If some TSA screener in a little room somewhere is gonna get off looking at my fat, naked body, well, you know, I ain't the one with the problem.

And as much as I worry about the privacy issues--and believe me, I specialize in screaming "Slippery slope!" at the mere hint of an incline--I'm more concerned by the fact that these scanners seem to be slowing down the security checkpoints, not making the process go more quickly.

So the ball is in your court. This stuff bug you? You gotta speak out. You have to act and object and resist.

Which brings me back to the beginning, those parcel bombs that started popping up around the world over the weekend. Besides the ones found in aircraft cargo holds, similar devices were addressed to German Prime Minister Angela Merkel and French President Nicholas Sarkozy.

That sent the security bureaucracy into a tizzy, of course. And if you've traveled in the last few days, you've undoubtedly noticed still more intrusive security measures in place. It's all mostly eyewash, of course. Just another flavor of security kabuki.

But guess what? My colleagues in the mainstream media have been sending film crews and reporters to the airport to ask passing travelers what they think. And you know what the average traveler thinks, right? They like the security kabuki. Their almost Pavlovian response: Well, it is dangerous out there, so the extra security makes me feel safer.

No matter that they aren't really safer. It all goes back to what you do. Those ill-informed travelers are the equivalent of the folks like me who voted in the Hall-Hayworth election on Tuesday. We've done our job. We've registered our opinions.

If you are unhappy with what's going on, it's your duty to speak up. Otherwise, get in line, go into the little body-imaging booth and do what you're told.

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ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.

This column is Copyright 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.