In 2008, Fred Gevalt and his daughter Emelie flew around the country trying to find out why Americans tolerate the growing security state.
“We wanted to know why did the land of the free and the brave chicken out,” he told me.
The Gevalts focused especially on what happens at airports under the name of security. They shared what they learned in a 94 minute film titled “Please Remove Your Shoes.”
You can see excerpts and get more information about the film and the people who made it by going to www.pleaseremoveyourshoesmovie.com. Salon has a review here; SecurityInfoWatch has a very thorough review here; the Wall Street Journal review is here, and the Washington Post review is here.
On the surface, the film appears to be about the security ineptitude of the FAA from the late 1980s through 2001 and the continuing problems of its genetically related TSA offspring. The story is told through the eyes of whistleblowers, a few members of congress, newspaper and television reporters, and several other people in and around aviation security.
The film includes a review of several post 9/11 incidents that raise questions about the effectiveness of TSA and the safety of air travel. It has an extended excerpt of Steven Bierfeldt’s chilling (and recorded) interaction in March 2009 with TSA and law enforcement officials at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport: was this reasonable suspicion or abuse of authority?
The film is not a political movie in a hatchet job way. It is a political movie in the sense that it asks how much we are willing to put up with in the name of security; how we balance threat against consequences.
One of the people in the movie puts it this way:
“By sewing fear, Jihadist wield power out of all proportion to their numbers. They threaten not just lives, but a way of life; fostering a paranoid mindset in which innocent travelers accept being bullied, harassed, and stripped of their constitutional rights. …. [We] still don’t have a system that is rational, effective and proportionate to the threat. We continue to sacrifice our resources and freedoms for nothing more than an elaborate facade of security.”
In my view, the film’s TSA focus is as much macguffin as minotaur. A central current of the film is how security has become a national shibboleth, something too sacred to question.
“Security has become too hot to touch,” Gevalt said during an interview.
“Congress is afraid to touch it. They just have to support it ad infinitum. This is what frightens me. The prospective budget for [security] is infinite. It’s unbelievable. And TSA is right in there. The economy stinks. And we’ve got a bunch of guys [TSA] who, understandably, want to keep their jobs, hire more people, get bigger, get more important, get recognized.”
Gevalt says he and the others responsible for the movie have more to say than maybe what the film actually portrays.
“I’m not apologizing for it. I think it’s a damn good movie. But I think it’s necessary first to demonstrate that in many, many respects the system does not work. …. There’s a kind of naive expectation by the public that there is a statistical increase in [aviation security] because of TSA and homeland security. And I just don’t think that’s true.
“I don’t think that’s necessarily the fault of TSA entirely. I think it’s partly a function of the nature of the beast. When you stop and think that we as a country lose 40,000 people a year to car accidents, 120,000 people a year to alcohol, and half a million to cigarette smoke — we haven’t forfeited all our personal liberties and we haven’t put ourselves into national bankruptcy over those three topics. Yet look what we’re [spending] on security.
“The average is something like 104 people per annum from 1973 through 2001, including 9/11, that have died [from] terrorism [in the US]. That’s an extraordinary number, and I’m not going to suggest to the families of the 9/11 victims that [it’s not important]. But from a position of leadership, why are we doing this? This is self flagellation.
“I think the bigger question is why are we throwing all this [security] money against the wall, with all the attendant employees, and gadgets, and policies and everything that comes with it. It’s nuts. It’s absolutely nuts.
That’s part of why I spent a good hunk of my nest egg [Gevalt financed the film himself] because I think we at least owe it to ourselves to think about it and talk about it.”
How does Gevalt think we can get out of the war on terror trap?
“Well, I think we start by looking at the statistical probabilities of death, doom and destruction right in the eye and try to make a cold blooded decision.”
In the world of homeland security, this is called risk management.
“But you can’t expect people in the business like TSA to think this way because it fundamentally undercuts what they are doing.”
I started to ask him if he thought TSA had improved over the years. The movie closes with a dozen recommendations for improving aviation security. Many have been implemented already. The people in DHS I spoke with say the film mostly reports old news.
But whether TSA has improved or not is irrelevant to the larger point Gevalt is making.
“They probably have improved, but it’s kind of like saying ‘We need to fix this car over here, so we got a basketball team to help do it. Don’t you think their drop shot is better than it used to be?’”
Why did Gevalt make this movie? What does he hope it accomplishes?
“My hope is that someone in Washington knows what the point of all this is. What are we doing here, at the strategic level? What are we looking for? What are we supposed to do? What are we not supposed to do? It would strike me that the biggest single problem that faces this agency [TSA] is whether or not they are operating as a deterrent or … to interdict. Are they there to stop [a terrorist] or are they just there to shoe them away and have them go bomb the subway or something?”
The people at TSA I know are as serious about making sure flying is safe as are the whistleblowers and other critics in the movie.
Gevalt acknowledges that, but…
“How much are you willing to spend, how much should the government spend, how much does it make sense to spend in terms of time, employees, money, everything that costs you to build this kind of scarecrow?
“I gather you liked the movie?” Gevalt asked me at the end of the interview
“It’s not a movie you like or you don’t like,” I said. “It’s a movie that you have to think about.”
“I’m glad it had that effect,” Gevalt said. “That’s what we’re trying to do.”