Politics & Policy

Travel, the TSA, and Teutonic Terminology

The first people to blame for this mess are the murderers.

When it comes to understatements, “the Germans have made some mistakes” is in a class by itself. But one thing they’re great at is words. They’ve got the best words, particularly for feelings of angst or woe. Most everyone knows schadenfreude, the feeling of joy one has at another’s misfortune. A more useful term in the melancholy group would be weltschmerz: the sadness one feels when contemplating how far the real world is from an ideal world.

Other German words are rich in specificity but impoverished in pith. For example, there’s Verbesserungsvorschlagsversammlung, which is a meeting held to hear suggestions for improvement, or Schwarzwälderkirschtortenlieferantenhut, which, according to my less-than-scholarly Internet spelunking, is the hat worn by a Black Forest–cake delivery person.

#ad#Anyway, the reason I’ve gotten us both into this Teutonic-etymological mess is that I was searching around for one of my favorite German words: Fingerspitzengefühl. It seemed like the perfect password for entry into the impenetrable debate over the Transportation Security Administration and its new policy of getting into the anatomical nitty-gritty at airports.

I was out of the country, with very limited access to news, when this controversy erupted, and I had a hard time getting a feel for it. Hence my search for Fingerspitzengefühl, which I’m overdue in defining. Fingerspitzengefühl, according to Wikipedia, is a military leader’s ability to grasp “an ever-changing operational and tactical situation by maintaining a mental map of the battlefield.” But Wikipedia adds that it doesn’t have to be a martial term. Fingerspitzengefühl “literally means ‘finger tip feeling,’ and is synonymous with the English expression of ‘keeping one’s finger on the pulse.’”

Both connotations seem apt.

The War on Terror, as we all know, is an unconventional thing, at least on the home front. Instead of missiles or marauding armies, our enemies attack with exploding shoes or other weapons hidden where the sun does not shine. As a result, security officials need — or at least think they need — new kinds of information, and lots of it.

In short, Uncle Sam craves a Fingerspitzengefühl of the battlefield in your shoes, shirts, and, yes, pants. If you don’t agree to a body scan, then TSA officials will have to get their Fingerspitzengefühl with their actual fingers.

One traveler presented with this new reality protested, “Don’t touch my junk,” and a media sensation ensued.

Personally, I think the controversy is overdone. I don’t love the policy, but the outrage seems a bit misplaced. I’d bet that the vast majority of TSA employees do not want to touch your junk — or mine. And if any TSA agent gives the slightest indication that junk-touching is his or her favorite part of the job, he or she should be fired immediately.

Obviously, the first people to blame for this mess are the murderers. Without them, flying wouldn’t be the soul-killing experience it is.

But we’re partially to blame, too. Politicians are torn between two legitimate impulses: to protect us from very real dangers as best they can, and to be liked by us. Unfortunately, these impulses often conflict. If we weren’t in danger, we wouldn’t need airport screening, electronic or otherwise. The Black Forest–cake deliveryman on his way to Grandma’s for Oktoberfest in Orlando would have neither his cake nor his Schwarzwälderkirschtortenlieferantenhut searched, never mind the inseam of his lederhosen.

But the murderers won’t comply, so we need to search people. The electronic scanners were intended to make such searches as tolerable as possible.

Of course, there are better ways to screen people, but privacy activists on the left and right claim it’s better to inconvenience everyone than single out anyone. For them, profiling passengers is Germanic not in the goofy etymological sense but in the 1930s Gestapo sense.

#page#That’s why I have some sympathy for the Obama administration. The president was just shellacked at the polls because many Americans feel the government is too big, too intrusive, and too incompetent. The rubber-gloved hand of Leviathan groping our junk is a pretty apt symbol of that mood. The problem for the White House is they not only lack Fingerspitzengefühl, they actually have a thumbless grasp of the national mood. 

#ad#But Obama is not to blame. Osama bin Laden is. No doubt he is overcome with schadenfreude when he reads that American travelers are overcome with weltschmerz. My only hope is that enough Americans will realize there’s got to be a better way, and the next Congress will serve as a Verbesserungsvorschlagsversammlung to figure out how to keep us safe while denying government agents a Fingerspitzengefühl of our junk.

– Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. © 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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