Traveling in these Politically Correct Times

I am, generally speaking, quite sanguine about the long-term prospects of the world. I believe with good reason that the trends are positive, and I entirely dismiss the chicken littles that claim that the sky is falling. But my optimism tends to disappear when I have to travel. For all intents and purposes, it appears to me that the world is going to hell in a hand basket whenever I am forced to be a customer of the US air transportation system, like I was in the last few weeks when I went first to Mexico and then to the East coast. Most people in the US are unfortunately quite familiar with the unwelcome attention of the “Homeland Security” apparatus. It appears to be a farce but I fear that it will end up as a tragedy because the people have abdicated their basic civic responsibility of being watchful of their government. Therein lies a lesson which I will come to presently.

To me, one of the most enduring mysteries is why people want to be “politically correct.” What’s in it for them? It’s a mystery because I am not PC, and don’t see any benefit arising from it. For instance, I am all for profiling of people when it comes to security. I whole-heartedly agree with Sam Harris when he says in his blog post, “In Defense of Profiling“, “We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it.”

Why? Because, as Sam puts it in the addendum to his post, “it is simply a fact that, in the year 2012, suicidal terrorism is overwhelmingly a Muslim phenomenon. If you grant this, it follows that applying equal scrutiny to Mennonites would be a dangerous waste of time.”

Before I go on, let me point you to a video that Sam Harris links to in his piece. I must declare that watching it was not good for my health, as it raised my blood pressure to dangerous levels. Watch it at your own risk. A toddler in a wheelchair with a cast on his leg being minutely scrutinized for explosives!

I, as much as the next guy, would not like to be a victim of a terrorist bombing of a commercial jetliner. It’s a fact of the modern air transportation system that there are groups which keep trying to kill innocents by the planeloads, and these groups are overwhemingly jihadi. The security apparatus which costs billions of dollars is – in part – a response to the threat of terrorism. Not just truckloads of money, it is costly in terms of delay and needless aggravation. No one touched by it (literally and figuratively) likes it, with the exception of those employees of the “security theater” who get their jollies from groping people. We have to live with this reality but that does not mean that the whole exercise should not be as rational as possible. Rationality and sanity dictate that at the very least, the process should be efficient and effective.

When everyone is presumed to be a suicide bomber with equal probability, precious resources are wasted in subjecting clearly harmless people to embarrassing harassment. The time and effort wasted is not just an exercise in futility but allows the dangerous possibility of letting real terrorists get through the security shield.

Bombs, guns and sharp objects do kill people but their are only the instruments — they are not the ultimate cause of the death and destruction. For that we have to look to the motives of the person boarding a flight. To distinguish between a harmless 3-year old toddler or an 85-year old granny, and a potential suicide bomber requires at the very least some judgement and the ability to assess humans. This ability is demonstrably lacking in too many of those who are employed by the security system of airports.

I never had a fear of flying but going through airport security (whether in the US, Germany, Mexico or India) scares me witless these days because I realize that the people in charge of security are brainless automatons who are merely following orders. They cannot distinguish between the abstract ideas of possibility and probability. Yes, it is possible that the toddler, despite all appearances, is really being used as a live bomb by the family hellbent on committing suicide. It’s also possible that I will win the Super Lotto this week. It’s possible but it is improbable: the probability is about 140 million to one, against.

Sam Harris is always an engaging writer and that piece of his does not disappoint. Here’s a bit:

Although I don’t think I look like a jihadi, or like a man pretending not to be one, I do not mean to suggest that a person like me should be exempt from scrutiny. But other travelers fit the profile far less than I do. One glance at these innocents reveals that they are no more likely to be terrorists than walruses in disguise . . .

While leaving JFK last week, I found myself standing in line behind an elderly couple who couldn’t have been less threatening had they been already dead and boarding in their coffins. I would have bet my life that they were not waging jihad. Both appeared to be in their mid-eighties and infirm . . .

After much preparation, the couple proceeded toward the body scanner, only to encounter resistance . . . This imposed obvious stress on two harmless and bewildered people and caused considerable delay for everyone in my line. I turned to see if anyone else was amazed by such a perversion of vigilance. The man behind me, who could have played the villain in a Bollywood film, looked unconcerned.

. . . my wife and I once accidentally used a bag for carry-on in which I had once stored a handgun—and passed through three airport checkpoints with nearly 75 rounds of 9 mm ammunition. While we were inadvertently smuggling bullets, one TSA screener had the presence of mind to escort a terrified three-year-old away from her parents so that he could remove her sandals (sandals!). Presumably, a scanner that had just missed 2.5 pounds of ammunition would determine whether these objects were the most clever bombs ever wrought. Needless to say, a glance at the girl’s family was all one needed to know that they hadn’t rigged her to explode.

Sam has an excellent brain no doubt but what’s more, he has the cojones to say it like he sees it. He predictably received tons of hate mail because of that blog post of his. But Sam is an all too rare exception. Not everyone who believes that profiling is a good idea is going to come out and say it. They don’t because it is not politically correct to do so. We live in dangerous times, made all the more dangerous because of the incredible stupidity of the politically correct. Political correctness is a disease and while it may not kill humanity, it will definitely cripple it.

Let me paraphrase H. L. Mencken, that old devil whom I admire immensely. I substitute “democracy” and “anti-democrat” with “political correctness” and “anti-politically correct person” in the following quote:

Political correctness, alas, is also a form of theology, and shows all the immemorial stigmata. Confronted by uncomfortable facts, it invariably tries to dispose of them by appeals to the highest sentiments of the human heart. An anti-politically correct person is not merely mistaken; he is also wicked, and the more plausible he is the more wicked he becomes.

The US is moving gradually and inexorably towards a disastrous culture of political correctness. Who gains? Follow the money. The security theater in US involves spending in the order of hundreds of billions of dollars. Absent political correctness, security can be ensured for perhaps a fraction of the costs. So for those who are making money in the wasteful expensive system today are quite happy to promote political correctness to trump reason and sanity.

The lesson I take away is that regardless of whether it is a rich country like the US, or a poor country like India, the government can be relied upon to deliberately mess up any job as long as there’s money to be made in the mess up. (Note that I eschewed using the f-word twice since this is a family blog.)

9 thoughts on “Traveling in these Politically Correct Times

  1. Atanu, I am commenting on your blog after I think almost 5 years. There’s a nice wording somebody coined: “All Muslims are not terrorists but all terrorists are Muslims”

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  2. Yes, it is possible that the toddler, despite all appearances, is really being used as a live bomb by the family hellbent on committing suicide. It’s also possible that I will win the Super Lotto this week. It’s possible but it is improbable: the probability is about 140 million to one, against.

    Wouldn’t it be reasonably easy for a competent terrorist to surreptitiously slip some explosive material onto some child’s person/stroller/pram/whatever without anyone, including the child or his parents noticing?

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  3. I think you are missing the point here. Other than the security theater, there is also a genuine check which is happening. If you were a terrorist and you knew that homeland security uses its judgement to not check grannies and/or 2 year-olds on wheel chairs, that is how you will smuggle the explosives. Sam Harris solution on profiling can be an added check not a substitute to the current system as it increases both possibility and probability of another successful terrorist attack. Economically, it might make sense but people (who can be irrational) prefer to pay the cost of additional security. Last I heard, the terrorists are looking out for white foot-soldiers.

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  4. What concerns me is that after we pass all this strict security you walk a little inside any major airport in the U.S. and you see a mini-mall with a carnival atmosphere. All these stores must be getting supplies through trucks all the time and the stores are manned by minimum wage workers. Excuse me for saying this but it is not difficult for a terrorist to impersonate or bribe and influence one of the myriad shopkeepers. We are simply lucky that nothing has happened so far.

    What I would expect is once they pass the security the travelers should be kept in an isolated area till they board a plane.

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  5. This bending over backwards political correctness to appease jihadi nutcases and the rampaging hordes of religious warriors is what’s gotten Europe and England into the godawful mess they are in today.

    Today it’s taboo to call out the blindingly obvious relationship between terrorist and fundamentalist groups and islam’s core teachings of intolerance. Germany has seen more than enough “sh*t hits the fan” moments after embracing the ships full of LTTE militants, France is having a truly wonderful time now with islamic jihadis blowing stuff up, Norway may follow very soon as will several other EU nations. Little needs to be said about the violently radicalised UK, many boroughs there make me feel I’m in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia and not a western nation.

    As for traveling, I avoid it as much as I can these days, specially to the US. I look Indian but that doesn’t stop them fingering me all over and sending me through the secondary inspection, regular as clockwork for a non-white skinned person.

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  6. Political correctness everywhere is spreading at a high rate, the speed differs for countries due to various reasons. I am not sure if its necessarily due to money.
    In many sociocultural situations in US, race and religion commenting is strict no-no. Unless one is really close to the interlocutor, you dont venture there. There is no financial incentive or fine. Its just so. A kind of social evolution where being generally nice is extended moronically to the extreme of political correctness. Even amongst whites, for many it would be unacceptable to make educational policies specifically for blacks because that community lacks in that department. They would insist on an egalitarian policy which covers all educationally backward people, irrespective of race. This is in spite of the fact that certain communities are just different, and a one-for-all policy doesnt work. The financial incentive in that situation is actually with the whites, since most of the counselors and do-gooders for the blacks are white. So even though they have the incentive (having separate policies and their implementation would involve more money), they would shun such a policy.
    Being PC is seen as virtue by most, and the problem lies in that mindset.

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  7. Interesting – to read responses as well…

    PC is a mistaken idea of what tact and sensitivity is… a kind of disease spread by post-modernism…where the individual and indeed his peer group which exerts the influence on him, tries hard to conform to being tactful and sensitive in every (read every) kind of situation/environment, event he encounters. So if his ‘Catholic’ neighbor’s child is being paddled regularly he should be ‘tactful and sensitive’ and pretend he didn’t see anything or if he hears hateful ‘religious’ speeches being aired through loudspeakers he feels he’ more ‘evolved’ if he keeps quiet and treats it as something that goes with freedom of religion…

    Tact and sensitivity is in reality context-bound…pointing out to your friend that she’s got spinach stuck in her teeth is sensitive if done in the privacy of restroom or due surreptitiousness but not tactful or sensitive if done drawing the attention of several bystanders…Abandon the context (indeed be context-insensitive) and you’ve got PC

    PC leads to several ‘elephants-in-the-room’ and is really the sign of a collective psychoneurosis. Psychoneurosis leads to grief if left unattended…So Sam Harris and Atanu are the right track…

    Incidentally, Schnier’s only talking about more efficacious ways of terror curtailment and prevention than airport screening…here’s a counterpoint from the comments section “As stated by Ariel Merari, an Israeli terrorism expert, “it would be foolish not to use profiling when everyone knows that most terrorists come from certain ethnic groups. They are likely to be Muslim and young, and the potential threat justifies inconveniencing a certain ethnic group.” El Al, the Israeli airlines takes this approach and is reportedly very successful with no attacks despite being a high-risk target…

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