TYRRELL: I was wrong

New facts call for new views

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” So said John Maynard Keynes when a dearly held belief of his was confronted by new facts. He changed his mind and was not ashamed. I am an extreme empiricist. Show me the facts, and I shall make up my mind. Show me the new facts, and I shall change my mind.

Last week, goaded by Matt Drudge’s hordes, I took my stand against the opponents of the scan and the pat-down. I thought they were hysterics and very funny or provocateurs and obnoxious. Also, they inspired in me a few facetious sallies. That vulgarian John Tyner, who won himself a place in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations for Slobs by telling the patter-downers, “If you touch my junk, I’ll have you arrested,” was too much. Junk? Speak for yourself, Mr. Tyner. I filed my column, dismissing the protesters and confident that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), though essentially made up of bureaucrats, was saving us from another Sept. 11. Then all hell broke out.

Even on the American Spectator website, I was excoriated, sometimes courteously, but not always. I did note a disconcerting current of thoughtfulness among my critics - and, of course, a love of liberty. Could this be another manifestation of the Tea Party movement, that admirably liberty-loving activism that has risen in the land? It had all the earmarks of intelligence, intellectual rigor and regard for constitutional liberty. Big brother, stand back! Moreover, some of my colleagues at the magazine were in a state of rebellion, one being Mark Hyman who, having served in intelligence in the 1980s, is given to writing very thoughtfully about security matters. He thought the TSA a joke. Maybe Mr. Drudge’s hordes were right. Maybe the TSA was taking liberties. Possibly the TSA should be screened for sex offenders and other weirdos in its ranks.

The next day I hopped the Acela down to Washington from New York. Naturally, I chose the quiet car. I chose it as much for the quiet as for the gigantic controversies when one of quietude’s neurotics runs into a rider who cannot read the “Quiet Car” signs that abound or does not care. Kaboom, the maniac for quiet blows up and creates a charming fracas. It never fails to amuse me. At any rate, I was halfway to Washington when Sean Hannity’s aide called saying Sean would have a word with me upon my 4 p.m. arrival in our nation’s capital. He, too, was among my critics.

I was not in the station 10 minutes when my cell phone rang and on came Sean with a 32-year veteran female pilot who had been violated by a member of TSA. How could I take sides with the violator? OK, OK, Sean, I have changed my mind. By then I was confronted by a whole new set of facts. One, my friend Mr. Hyman had demonstrated the follies of the TSA. Its screeners have committed egregious blunders. Two, there were new, even more barbaric ways to secrete a bomb. For one, the savage who almost killed the head of Saudi intelligence had secreted it in his - the polite word is body cavity. Bombs carried in this manner could not be caught by the scanner or a team of TSA’s best. Three, there was a whole array of freedom issues here, and one could not take them lightly. This was, if not the Tea Party movement, at least the impulse that gave the Tea Party life, a love of personal liberty that is not found in many nations of the earth.

Then there was a fourth consideration. This whole controversy is unnecessary. The Israelis have found a way to avoid it and to avoid savages blowing up airplanes. It is by intelligent, non-intrusive profiling. The Israeli agent picks a suspect. The agent stands very close to the suspect and asks questions in a rapid-fire manner, preventing the suspect from considering his answers. The Israelis watch for behavioral reactions that merit further inspection. By contrast, TSA behavioral detection officers’ techniques are a joke.

This hang-up about profiling is at the root of our problem. It is a false piety practiced by the ancien regime. A whole new set of facts is presented by the war on terror. It is time for Americans, with Keynes as their guide, to change their minds.

R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is founder and editor-in-chief of the American Spectator and an adjunct scholar at the Hudson Institute. His new book is “After the Hangover: The Conservatives’ Road to Recovery” (Thomas Nelson, 2010).

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