This Thanksgiving, Pittsburghers have something extra to be thankful for when they drop off relatives at the airport. Sure, Grandma may feel violated by the new security measures, but those procedures have created a new champion of personal liberty: Congressman Tim Murphy.
In a Nov. 22 release, the 18th District Republican announced he'd heard the complaints of travelers, and was seeking "a thorough review of the new screening procedures used by the Transportation Security Administration."
While acknowledging security "must be rigorous," Murphy opined that new, more invasive procedures "cross the line and result in the public degradation and humiliation of airline passengers.
"The measures by which the federal government takes to protect its citizens cannot eradicate the liberties that it aims to protect," Murphy added.
Wow. Where was this guy during the debate over the George W. Bush's Patriot Act, an expansion of the security state that Murphy was happy to support?
At the heart of the airport-security furor are "backscatter X-rays" -- which are capable of generating a computer image of what you look like without your clothes on -- and the pat-downs given to passengers who refuse the scan. The pat-downs are now increasingly intrusive; security officials are allowed to touch groins and breasts. But it shouldn't be any surprise that the pat-down is as intimate as the X-ray scan itself. And it's not as if the backscatter machines were hatched in secret.
News accounts about them date back to 2003, when the Associated Press presciently warned that "[a]ir travelers are not going to like being technologically undressed by security scanners." Yet Murphy and other Republicans were silent, even as groups like the Electronic Privacy Information Center warned in 2005 that "[T]hese machines, which show detailed images of a person's naked body, are equivalent to a 'virtual strip search' for all air travelers." After voting in favor of the Homeland Security budget proposal EPIC warned about, in fact, Murphy crowed that "Congress has become more accountable in protecting our country."
So now he and other Republicans -- including those who went blithely along with Bush Administration invasions of privacy -- are shocked, shocked to discover the potential for government abuse. It's as if they thought the White House would always belong to them, and the civil liberties being violated would always belong to someone else.
But they've been in the minority for two years, and they've been reduced to using any partisan attack they can find -- even if it recently belonged to the other party. That's why during the recent election, Republicans put aside their hatred of deficits long enough to attack Democratic efforts to rein in Medicare. Sure, Medicare may be socialized medicine -- it pays for old people's healthcare -- but those geezers vote.
Murphy is an especially teeth-grinding case.
In August, for example, he voted against spending $668 million to cover healthcare for impoverished Pennsylvanians -- supposedly because he cared about the poor. Murphy fretted the measure was paid for by future cuts in food-stamp aid ... making the bill "a choice between cutting food stamps or cutting healthcare for the poor." Touching, no? Except the food stamp "cuts" merely phased out an increase in food aid that was part of the Democrats' 2009 stimulus plan ... a plan Murphy had opposed.
His sudden concern about airport security seems similarly convenient. Even so, it doesn't make him wrong. When I asked Murphy's office about his change of heart, staffers reiterated that it was prompted by "troubled air travelers, airline workers, as well as TSA employees expressing concern [about] enhanced pat-down and screening procedures." And even if Murphy helped enable these absurd security measures, he's right to complain about them now.
In too many cases -- like the not-closure of the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, or the not-repeal of Don't Ask/Don't Tell -- Barack Obama has come across like a half-hearted Republican. And perpetuating the worst mistakes of previous administrations isn't just bad policy. It's also letting guys like Murphy score points by acting like half-hearted Democrats.
So the Obama administration finds itself -- again! -- caught between outraged right-wingers and a disenchanted left. In the wake of all the outrage, officials are already talking about easing some airport-security measures. But Democrats can look on the bright side: If Obama has made guys like Murphy care about civil liberties and health care for the poor, then he really has changed the culture of Washington.