The backdrop for my favorite science-fiction novels, Frank Herbert's "Dune" series, is something called the Butlerian Jihad. Some 10,000 years before the main events of the story take place, humanity rebelled against "thinking machines" -- intelligent computers -- controlling people's lives. The revolution was sparked because a computer decided to kill, without the consent of any human authority, the baby of a woman named Jehanne Butler.
I bring this up because I'm wondering why we can't have a Weberian Jihad.
Its namesake would be Jean Weber, a woman whose 105-pound, 95-year-old Florida mother was forced by airport security to remove her adult diaper in compliance with a body search. Weber's mother is dying of leukemia. She did not have another clean diaper for her trip.
The Transportation Security Administration belatedly denied forcing the removal of the diaper. Sari Koshetz, a spokeswoman for the TSA, insisted that the agency was sensitive and respectful in dealing with travelers, but she also told the Northwest Florida Daily News that procedures have to be the same for everyone: "TSA cannot exempt any group from screening because we know from intelligence that there are terrorists out there that would then exploit that vulnerability."
That's apparently why Drew Mandy, a 29-year-old disabled man with the mental capacity of a 2-year-old, had his 6-inch plastic toy hammer yanked from him by TSA on his way to Disney World. Mandy used the hammer as a security blanket of sorts. But the TSA agents insisted it could be used as a weapon. "It just killed me to have to throw it away because he's been carrying this, like, for 20 years," Mandy's father told WJBK in Detroit. What his dad doesn't understand is that if Islamic terrorists can't have plastic toy hammers, no one can.
Mandy's father says he wrote to the TSA and got an apology and a promise that agents would be retrained, but horror stories like these keep mounting. I'd tell you how thorough the TSA search was of blogger and advice columnist Amy Alkon (who collects such tales), but this is a family newspaper. Suffice it to say, your government left nothing to chance.
And that's what brought to mind "Dune's" Butlerian Jihad. The holy war against machines was also a war against a mind-set. "The target of the jihad was a machine-attitude as much as the machines," a character explains. "Humans had set those machines to usurp our sense of beauty, our necessary selfdom out of which we make living judgments." In the aftermath, a new commandment was promulgated: "Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind."
It seems the first commandment of the TSA is that every mind must be trained in the likeness of a machine. "Garbage in, garbage out," is how computer programmers explain the way bad outputs are determined by bad inputs. Likewise, if TSA workers are programmed not to use common sense or discretion -- surprise! -- TSA workers won't use common sense or discretion.
Why not? One reason is we've institutionalized an irrational phobia against anything smacking of racial or religious profiling. Once you've decided that disproportionate scrutiny of certain groups is verboten, you'll have to hassle everyone equally. Thus we're told that a 95-year-old woman's diaper is just as likely to be the front line in the war on terror as a 22-year-old Pakistani's backpack.
Defenders of the TSA insist we can't abandon such mindlessness because if we do, clever terrorists will start using adult diapers as IEDs. Others say we know that profiling isn't effective because the Israelis don't use it.
Both lines of argument assume security personnel cannot be trusted to be much more than automatons, mindlessly acting on bureaucratic programming. If that's true of the current personnel, it's not because it has to be.
In fact, the reason the Israelis don't do simple profiling is that they use intelligent profiling conducted by highly intelligent screeners. At Ben Gurion International Airport, everyone's interviewed by security. Some are questioned at length, others quickly. The controlling variable is the "living judgment" -- to borrow a phrase from "Dune's" Herbert -- of the interviewers, and not wildly expensive full-body scanners and inflexible checklists.
Does anyone think that the personnel searching Jean Weber's mother honestly thought there might be a threat? Or is it more likely they were, machine-like, just doing what their garbage-in programming dictated?