Saturday, January 7, 2012

A Den of VIPRs

At this point, it's unlikely that we'd be able to go back to the way things were twelve years ago; too many variables have changed, too many vested interests have entrenched themselves. It's difficult to project a near-term future where the security theatre that's become increasingly dominant in the West in general and the United States in particular will take a step back - instead, what's easiest to see is a future where that security theatre keeps moving forward, grimly and relentlessly, and in the name of security it may stamp freedom into the dust.

On the face of it, Canada and the United States responded to the September 11 attacks in similar ways; where the US set up the TSA under the Department of Homeland Security to take over airport security, which up until then had been overseen by one of the airlines using that airport, Canada established CATSA. The airport experience in both countries is broadly similar; airports on both sides of the border have pornoscanners, though you won't necessarily have to go through them, and while they didn't made me take my shoes off in the screening lines at Vancouver or Fredericton, that's been the case in Toronto and Los Angeles. The liquid restriction rule, intended to prevent binary explosives like in Die Hard With a Vengeance being brought on board, is universal, which for me just makes Amtrak that much more attractive for cross-border travel.

There is, however, one key difference; it's right in the names. CATSA is the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority; it's specifically responsible for security in airports, and nowhere else. The TSA is the Transportation Security Administration, and while many people consider it to be just the agency that deals with airport security, its actual bailiwick is "[to protect] the Nation's transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce."

That's right, the TSA's authority isn't just limited to airports, but extends to all transportation systems within the United States... which is rather a large point of responsibility, don't you think? It's also a rather unsettling one when you take into account issues of the sort that were raised in the Orange County Register's editorial of December 28th, which shines a light on the TSA's moves after ten years to expand their presence outside the airports. Right now there are twenty-five Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response, or VIPR, teams active in the United States.

What are they doing, you might ask? Well, according to NewsChannel5 of Nashville, back in October some of them were in Tennessee, establishing security checkpoints at two bus stations and five Interstate weigh stations in the state - giving Tennessee the somewhat dubious honor of becoming the "first state to fight terrorism statewide," as the headline rather bombastically puts it.

I'm sorry, sir or madam, but federal regulations dictate that no person may travel outside their homes with unscreened liquid in excess of 100 mL in a clear plastic bag. Please exit your car for secondary screening.

This is how it starts - not with a bang, but with a whimper. This is how control is extended. This is where police states begin. Sobriety checkpoints are one thing, but these are something else again; if anyone had suggested establishing security checkpoints on the highways to combat terrorism twenty years ago they would have been dismissed as a lunatic, and from 1992 to 2012 we get the entrenchment of lunacy as policy. How far can this go? Will security checkpoints along the highways, in metro stations and train stations, and on the streets be facts of life? Will there be something that, although it would never be called as such, acts like the internal passports of the Soviet Union - something to justify the warnings of "your papers, please?"

I'm thankful that, for now at least, Canada's version is specifically limited to airport security. There have also been pushbacks in the United States; in 2011, Amtrak ordered VIPR teams off its property for a time in response to some of these searches. Freedom of movement is an integral right in a free and open state, and while these random security checkpoints on previously open routes are justified by the spectre of terrorism, the real threat is what this sort of thing normalizes. Ten, twenty years from now - who knows?

Plus, that's if there isn't another major attack. If terrorists strike the United States again in a big way, all bets are off.

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