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Holiday Question Time

by Alva Noë
Nov 26, 2010

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I joined the 13.7 blog team 10 weeks ago. I've greatly enjoyed the 10 Friday-morning essays I've published since then, each dealing with some topic related to my own work as a philosopher and cognitive scientist.

Since it's a holiday, I'm going to do something different this week. Let's call this holiday question time. I've got a question. Perhaps you, Dear Readers, know the answer.

In Dr. Seuss's memorable The King's Stilts, the kingdom was kept safe from dyke-destroying ravenous nizzards by an army of well-groomed, well-trained cats. Led by their stilt-riding and vigilant king, the cats kept the folk safe from the birds and encroaching waters.

My question is this: might this be the solution to our airport security woes? Would not an army of well-trained sniffer dogs do an excellent job detecting non-metal explosive materials carried beneath a person's clothing?

I would have thought that dogs would be cheaper, safer and less invasive than machines — not to mention human searchers — and no less effective. Is there some reason why this option has not been discussed, let alone applied by the Transportation Security Agency? Is there some reason why we so quickly turned to the most invasive, most expensive, most high-tech measures available?

I can imagine what the answer to this question is, but I don't know. Perhaps you do?

I flew out of San Francisco International Airport on what I have been told is the busiest travel day of the year, the day before Thanksgiving. Having been inundated by news reports of threatened protests and controversies regarding the new security measures, and by the prospects of snarls and unhappiness at security, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found at the airport. Lines were short and the mood was cheerful. It was almost as if the check point was manned by the cast of a Disney channel sitcom. It was all giggles, helpful hands and friendly smiles. Maybe San Francisco is a special case. Or maybe, as I sometimes fear, the media story line had simply spun loose from the facts.

Or maybe the press's dogged and irritating obsession with this story gives expression to a deeper worry: we don't trust the judgment of the TSA. It's not that we particularly mind invasive screening, if that's what's needed to keep air travel safe. It's that we don't trust with they tell us about what is necessary to keep us safe. And I must admit, maybe with good reason.

Consider this: we now insist on the careful screening of every passenger and his or her hand luggage. However, we do not routinely screen all checked luggage. If we are concerned about suicide bombers — and that's what we're concerned about if we are worried about underwear bombers — then this simply makes no sense.

And so this leads me to another question: Can anyone tell me what is going on?

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