I travel a lot for work, and to see my family on the East Coast. As such, I keep a fairly close eye on changes in TSA screening, and have always been a bit squicked by the backscatter machines (or porno scanners, as I’ve seen them called). My issue is mostly discomfort with some random person looking at me naked; it’s an invasion of privacy that I don’t appreciate. The health arguments against them seem dubious, but then again, the security argument seems little better. No terrorist plot has been detected at the checkpoint. How large a risk of cancer should I tolerate for no obvious security benefit?
I didn’t get too worked up when the backscatter scanners first came out, because they were being used randomly alongside the standard metal detectors, and you could opt for a pat down instead, which wasn’t awful. But now the choice is between being digitally stripped naked or being frisked like a criminal suspect. As one security consultant put it: “It’s a better way to frisk, but we’re now subjecting the general public to the same frisking that police use with probable cause.”
I’m not a criminal. There’s no probable cause to search me. I’ve flown at least a couple times a year pretty much every year since I was born, and much more than that now that I get to travel for work. If I were a threat to aviation, I think it would’ve become clear by now. Before 9/11, I carried two pocket knives on every flight. I took a railroad spike onto a plane one time, with airport security’s knowledge and permission. I am not a threat to American aviation, and feeling me up or looking at me naked will not make anyone safer. And it certainly shouldn’t make anyone feel safer to know that the government can feel them up or strip them naked just because they want to come home from a business trip (let alone that they can be fined $10,000 for rejecting either option).
I don’t like the idea that flying requires being treated like a criminal. And I don’t know what to do about that.
Yes, the scanners raise health issues and some very important privacy issues, as do the pat-downs. But no less importantly, they are part of what has become an unsustainable security strategy: that is, treating each and ever passenger, from an infant children to uniformed crewmembers, as potential terrorists, and attempting to inspect their bodies and belongings for each and every possible weapon.
A friend today suggested that the solution would be to have one line for people who want to fly with people who have been screened, the other for people willing to fly with those who haven’t. The theory being that this is about herd immunity, that we’re all safer when we all get perved up by TSA.
But I’d pick the second line. Because starting with United 93 (and who knows what happened on the other flights on 9/11), every terrorist attack that got as far as the airport itself has been stopped not by TSA or other screeners, but by the passengers. So I’d rather have an airline system that encourages us to all work together, rather than a system that sets us at odds. Because I’ve flown lots of times, and I have every confidence that none of the other people on any plane I’ve been on would have tolerated any sort of nonsense. A sensible security system would build on that strength, the unity of passengers. Instead, we are instructed to trust and be groped by TSA screeners, the same people who think it’s funny to plant fake coke in people’s bags, and to lie about whether those naked pictures are actually stored. Little wonder that there’s a backlash.