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The Monitor's View

Airport security depends on TSA body scans and pat downs

Full-body scanners and pat downs are new because of new types of terrorist threats. Most flyers want security in the air. Congress should back TSA while also pushing for better technology that addresses privacy concerns.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / November 17, 2010



As more US airports use full-body image scans on boarding passengers – and for those who refuse, an intimate pat down by a security agent – the more Americans might ask:

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How much additional sacrifice must I endure to help prevent a terrorist from boarding an airplane?

Even the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) admits it has a limit on how far government should go to find concealed weapons: The TSA is reluctant to start searching body cavities of suspicious fliers, despite concerns that terrorists might use such a method to smuggle explosives onboard; and children under 12 are exempt from pat downs.

Ever since the 9/11 attacks, the United States has struggled to find a balance between beefing up security against terrorism and upholding the rights of individuals – whether it be a right to privacy, a fair trial in court, or freedom from racial profiling. This dynamic tension between rights and security must evolve with each novel attempt by Al Qaeda and its affiliates to thwart preventive measures.

For flight security, a string of unexpected threats – nonmetallic bombs in shoes, water bottles, and underwear – has pushed the TSA to adopt more intrusive methods, such as body scans, behavioral detection, and pat downs. And each time, Congress – whose leaders see the intelligence reports on threats – has weighed the public outcry and stood behind the TSA.

Lawmakers must back the agency in the face of organized pushback by private groups opposing the body scans and pat downs.

One group, We Won’t Fly, has even asked fliers to use the busiest travel day of the year, the Wednesday before this Thanksgiving, to “raise holy hell” about the TSA methods. For this designated “National Opt Out Day,” it has asked passengers to request not being scanned and if the resulting pat down is too “inappropriate,” to “call for a law enforcement officer.”

The goal is to create enough airport delays from so many lengthy pat downs that more people will join the cause.

What really lies behind such opposition to the new methods?

It is a personal assessment by these individuals that they themselves should not be seen as a potential threat and that the risk of attack is so much lower than security agencies say it is.

They, in essence, have little regard for the security concerns of most Americans who fly – concerns reflected by their elected representatives who have given the authority to the TSA to try to close every security loophole.

Privacy issues, of course, should always be of concern. Congress is right to ask TSA to keep looking for ways to reduce invasive screening. A new type of scanner, for instance, is now being tested that would reveal far less of a person’s body – mainly a stick figure – while only highlighting anything that looks suspicious. The resulting pat down would be very limited and specific.

And this new technology, if it can work well, might eliminate the need for passengers to take off their shoes. Once again, larger bottles with liquids might be allowed on board.

The TSA should also better alert passengers to the procedures they can expect while passing through security while also reducing delays. And politeness is a must.

Intrusive screening is indeed a challenge to social norms – but then terrorism is an even bigger and abnormal challenge to society.

Airline security is thus a shared responsibility, one that requires all citizens and the government to work together as threats change, as new screening technology emerges, and as more fliers see that their own sacrifice at checkpoints can help all fliers feel safe – and be safe.

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