Safety First, Dignity Last

Posted Nov. 18, 2010, at 7:13 p.m.

The latest search protocols adopted by the Transportation Security Administration have many people wondering whether airline safety is worth the indignities passengers now must suffer. After the infamous attempted terrorism by the “underwear bomber” last Christmas, TSA officials now require passengers in a growing number of airports to pass through an electronic scanning device that produces images of people pretty much as they would look if they disrobed. Those choosing not to pass through the scanners are subjected to a pat-down by a security officer that includes touching buttocks, crotch and breasts

With families scattered across the continent and business conducted globally, many Americans are likely to board an airplane in the course of a year. So given the propensity of terrorists to choose airplanes as targets, is such scrutiny a prudent response or an invasion of privacy?

There are no easy answers. But if these questions are not being asked, then the terrorists have already won.

John Pistole, head of the TSA, told the Senate Homeland Security Committee that while “reasonable people can disagree as to what that proper balance or blend is between privacy and security safety … everybody who gets on a flight wants to be reassured that everybody else around them has been properly screened.” Sen. Joe Lieberman said that, had the underwear bomber been successful, “Congress, and I daresay the public, would have been demanding not just the body imaging equipment but pat-downs.”

Both assertions are logical. But they ultimately may be trumped by the remarks made by a man who refused to enter the scanner at a San Diego airport and then refused to be patted down, telling the officer, “If you touch my junk [slang for genitalia], I’ll have you arrested.”

There are other measures to thwart those intent on killing themselves and blowing up airplanes. One is to secure the cockpit throughout flight, thereby blocking anyone from taking over as pilot to fly into buildings. Another is to have better itinerary information readily available to screeners, so if a passenger’s journey began in a nation known for producing terrorists, he could be targeted for more scrutiny.

Air travel is an exercise in communal living and trust. We agree to sit for a couple of hours with a hundred others in a thinly skinned cylinder hurtling 300 mph at 30,000 feet above Earth. Just as technology keeps air travelers safe at that speed and height, better technology must be used to keep would-be suicide bombers off planes.

Just because someone is willing to pack a bomb in his underwear doesn’t mean Americans are ready to have theirs groped by a security officer.

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