When it comes to protecting against terrorism, this is how things usually go: A danger presents itself. The federal government responds with new rules that erode privacy, treat innocent people as suspicious, and blur the distinction between life in a free society and life in a correctional facility. And we all tamely accept the new intrusions, like sheep being shorn.
Maybe not this time.
The war on terrorism is going to get personal. Very personal. Americans have long resented the hassles that go with air travel ever since 9/11—long security lines, limits on liquids, forced removal of footwear, and so on. But if the Transportation Security Administration has its way, we will look back to 2009 as the good old days.
The agency is rolling out new full-body scanners, which eventually will replace metal detectors at all checkpoints. These machines replicate the experience of taking off your clothes, but without the fun. They enable agents to get a view of your body that leaves nothing to the imagination.
A lot of people, of course, couldn't care less if a stranger wants to gaze upon everything God gave them. But some retain a modesty that makes them reluctant to parade naked in front of people they don't know, even virtually. Henceforth, Jennifer Aniston is going to think twice before flying commercial.
Besides the indignity of having one's body exposed to an airport screener, there is a danger the images will find a wider audience. The U.S. Marshals Service recently admitted saving some 35,000 images from a machine at a federal courthouse in Florida. TSA says that will never happen. Human experience says, oh, yes, it will.
For the camera-shy, TSA will offer an alternative: "enhanced" pat-downs. And you'll get a chance to have an interesting conversation with your children about being touched by strangers. This is not the gentle frisking you may have experienced at the airport in the past. It requires agents to probe aggressively in intimate zones—breasts, buttocks, crotches. If you enjoyed your last mammography or prostate exam, you'll love the enhanced pat-down.
Reviews of the procedure are coming in, and they are not raves. The Allied Pilots Association calls it a "demeaning experience," and one pilot complained it amounted to "sexual molestation." The head of a flight attendants' union local said that for anyone who has been sexually assaulted, it will "drudge up some bad memories."
But the option of the full-body scanner is not so appealing, either, even leaving out privacy concerns. Two pilots' unions have advised members not to go through the scanners because of the possible risks of being bombarded with low doses of radiation.
"There is good reason to believe that these scanners will increase the risk of cancer to children and other vulnerable populations," a group of scientists from the University of California at San Francisco informed the White House.
Aviation trade groups fear the public has finally been pushed over the edge. "We have received hundreds of e-mails and phone calls from travelers vowing to stop flying," Geoff Freeman, executive vice president of the U.S. Travel Association, told Reuters.
The new policy is being challenged in court by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which says it violates the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches. But don't expect judges to save us.
Says Stanford University law professor Robert Weisberg, with resignation in his voice, "Airports are pretty much a Fourth Amendment-free zone."
Though the harm to privacy is certain, the benefit to public safety is not. The federal Government Accountability Office has said it "remains unclear" if the scanners would have detected the explosives carried by the would-be Christmas Day bomber.
They would also be useless against a terrorist who inserts a bomb in his rectum—like the al-Qaida operative who blew himself up last year in an attempt to kill a Saudi prince. Full-body scanning will sorely chafe many innocent travelers, while creating only a minor inconvenience to bloodthirsty fanatics.
The good news is that last year, the House of Representatives voted to bar the use of whole-body scanners for routine screening. But only a sustained public outcry will force a change.
We will soon find out if there is a limit to the sacrifices of personal freedom that Americans will endure in the name of fighting terrorism. If we don't say no when they want to inspect and handle our private parts, when will we?
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