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Putting Our Hope in the Wrong Place

Summer has officially begun here in Canada. School let out last week and then yesterday, July 1, we celebrated Canada Day. Between these two events and the heat wave we’re experiencing, it’s clear that summer is upon us. It won’t be long before my family is traveling and, actually, I have to make a brief trip down to Buffalo, New York today to take my niece, nephew and mother to the airport there (they’ve been visiting for the past week). One thing that becomes clear to me when I drive over the border is the contrast between driving and flying.

Driving into the U.S. is simple; you simply speak to a person at the border, explain why you’re traveling and explain why they can’t tax you for anything you’re bringing in. It’s an all-human affair. Air travel is very different. Flying in or to the United States brings you under the dominion of the TSA. Since the TSA was created in the wake of 9/11, it has gradually been clamping down, demanding more and more restrictions on how we travel, what we travel with, and how we will be screened before we do so. To varying degrees Canada’s airport security organizations have had to follow suit. It’s an interesting conundrum we find ourselves in. Most of us travel by air on a regular or at least semi-regular basis. And all of us want to enjoy peace of mind while we are cruising along at 550 miles per hour. And so we welcome some level of screening—the kind of screening that allows the 99.99% of us who have no evil intentions to pass through quickly, easily and conveniently, but at the same time ensures that all the bad guys will get caught. We know that there are millions and millions of innocent people processed through those lines in order to weed out the very few terrorists.

It’s the humiliation that most people find so odious. Before 9/11 airport security was a slight annoyance, but by no means a major bother. Then the rules changed. Soon we were taking off our shoes, then having to ensure we had only travel-size cosmetics, and then actually take those cosmetics out so the TSA could see them. And then came the infamous full body scanners, the machines that digitally remove your clothes so the agents can peer underneath to see what you might be carrying on or in your body. Of course it also gives them a pretty good view of the particulars of your body. The alternative, should you choose to opt out of the scanner, is a thorough pat-down, one that is quite invasive and involves hands rubbing over the inner thigh, the genitals and the breasts. I have been through these patdowns more times than I care to admit; they are typically conducted professionally, but are still a wee bit unnerving.

So what is the TSA to do? They are between a rock and a hard place, between their mandate to protect the skies and passengers who are ready to say, “Enough!”

What’s particularly interesting to me as I think about the whole situation is the TSA’s reliance on high-tech solutions to this problem. One of the themes of my book The Next Story is that humans are prone to idolize technology, to put our trust in it, to believe that it is the first and best place to go when dealing with our problems. And ironically, this is especially true when it comes to problems caused by other technology. So when we have so many emails that our heads spin, we do not look for a solution that reduces our reliance upon email; instead, we look for ways to better filter it. And when technology has given terrorists advantages over us, we turn to technology to find ways of rooting them out. And this is where the body scanners come in. They are the latest and greatest, the machines that leave us all naked and exposed before the authorities. If only we can get everyone to walk through those machines, we will be safe, right?

But I can’t help but wonder if putting our trust in technology here is a mistake. Israel offers an interesting contrast, one that uses technology to an extent but places greater trust in low-tech solutions. Israel relies upon people—trained agents who look for certain human behaviors that will tip them off to someone who has evil intentions. They ask benign questions, they look you in the eyes, and they study your behavior. All the while other agents are wandering around the airport, simply looking for people whose behavior would tip them off. Here’s a description of what happens when you pass security in an Israeli airport: “‘First, it’s fast — there’s almost no line. That’s because they’re not looking for liquids, they’re not looking at your shoes. They’re not looking for everything they look for in North America. They just look at you,’ said Sela. ‘Even today with the heightened security in North America, they will check your items to death. But they will never look at you, at how you behave. They will never look into your eyes … and that’s how you figure out the bad guys from the good guys.’” It’s a very different solution for the exact same problem, or maybe even a more urgent problem.

This is not necessarily to say that one approach is objectively right and the other objectively wrong. Rather, I simply find it so interesting to see that we tend toward the technological solution. There seems to be something in the heart, something within us, that wants to put its trust in the latest and greatest, in the best technology. We find comfort there. Israel represents the exception here, the one that has been willing to put its hope not in machines but in people, not in the highest technology but in the lowest. And their track record would seem to say that it has worked even better.