Shipping container madness

Two Democrats in the House have introduced a bill to scan all ship container cargo headed for the US. That’s right, all containers. From where they are loaded. By American personnel.

In order to ensure that every container is checked for radiological or other hazardous substances, the S.O.S. Act would mandate:

1) That all containers be scanned using the best-available technology, including scanning for radiation and density, before they are loaded onto a ship destined for the United States;

2) That the scans be reviewed by American security personnel before the container is loaded; and

3) That the containers be sealed with a device that indicates if the container has been tampered with in transit, and that would notify U.S. officials of a breach before the container enters the Exclusive Economic Zone of the United States.

There must be thousands of ports loading containers headed for the US. They want to put staff in all of them with super whizz-bang scanning detectors so they can stop the Baddies? First off, these Congresscritters’ paranoia level seems absurd. Other countries do no such scanning, and get on just fine. Second, this is just another example of the US predilection for attempting to solve problems with “superior technology” rather than using people on the ground.

In Vietnam, they thought victory would be assured by bombing from the air rather than fighting on the ground. Wrong. In Iraq they charged in wearing 50 extra pounds of snazzy high tech gear when it was 115 degrees. That wasn’t real bright either. Now they want to stop a threat that has yet to actually happen by putting tens of thousands of personnel in thousands of foreign ports with expensive scanning gear. What’s really needed is experienced people on the ground working with with the locals – assuming of course the locals will permit the US there – and not more high tech toys. (This is also more US imperialist arrogance, assuming they can install their police anywhere on the globe without even consulting the government of those countries.)

This plan will never work. Five minutes of thinking and most anyone could figure ways around it. It’s expensive, unwieldy, impractical, and next to impossible to implement. And yeah, it was Democrats who proposed it, not Republicans.


  1. Expensive as it is, it’s less expensive than actually paying people to learn a foreign language and live in a foreign country and use their wits. The cultural advantage for Americans is that it proposes a solution that is independent of local conditions and customs. The perception is that people who don’t speak the local language won’t be corrupted by local customs (see the attackes on the professionals in the State Department, as if we actually had large numbers of State Department officials who speak the local languages). The fact that this is a proven boneheaded strategy is irrelevant because it meets the command and control cultural concerns of management and is therefore immune to rational criticism and empirical feedback.

  2. It also assumes the ports and governments involved will allow US police to inspect ships leaving their ports, an assumption made all the more arrogant by the bill not even apparently mentioning that permission might be needed or asked for.

    Unless you speak the language and know the country, you’ll be blind to things that would be obvious to the locals. Which is really just more cultural imperialism, we don’t need to learn your culture, ours is superior, yours doesn’t matter.

    All of which, as you say, is absurd and doomed to failure.

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