Beyond the Nanny State

If there is any good that might come from the Transportation Safety Administration's heavy-handed move to full-body scanners, complete with refusers being forced to endure aggressive pat-downs that all too often fit the dictionary definition of sexual assault, it's that it may shake enough Americans out of their presumptive, too-comfortable complacency about our government's benign intentions.

The TSA mostly had my backing until several weeks ago. No, let me correct that. The TSA employees on the ground who carry out the government's required searches at our airports had my sympathies. After all, they're not the ones who decided that all passengers must be profiled equally (if you won't profile on any other basis, that's what you're doing). To be clear, this horrible no-profiling non-judgment goes back to George W. Bush's neanderthal Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta. TSA's frontline employees aren't the ones who decided that everyone must send their shoes through the X-ray machines, and they're not the ones who have compiled the detailed list of what you can and cannot take onto the plane or include with your checked baggage.

But my compassion for TSA employees who have public, er, contact mostly vanished when I learned that the "Advanced Imaging Technology" (AIT) currently being employed:

  • May not be safe -- "[S]ome researchers are sounding the alarm about airport scanners and the radiation they give off," including, according to CBS News, "a group of doctors in San Francisco [who] want the FDA to do an analysis of the radiation risk."

  • Hasn't been proven safe, at least to the public -- "It appears the Obama administration wants to keep that information classified."

There's also plenty of justification for doubting AIT's security effectiveness. CBS also tells us that:

  • A report issued after investigators for the Department of Homeland Security "tested the devices in eight airports using federal agents disguised as passengers to see if the items they had on their person were detected by the controversial whole body scanners" stated: "The number of tests conducted, the names of the airports tested, and the quantitative and qualitative results of our testing are classified."

  • "The Government Accountability Office has criticized TSA's internal testing of the machines."

What's with the secrecy? If AIT screening is truly effective, the government would be performing a public service by saying so. The idea that potential terrorists would take such an announcement, if backed by the facts, as some kind of a dare is pretty weak; it isn't as if they're not already constantly looking for other airline-related lines of attack. More likely, the lack of willingness to disclose how well AIT and other procedures really work is emboldening terrorists to continue their pursuit.

But let's get back to the TSA's employees. Anyone there who understands the problems with AIT, and the completely logical reasons why people would refuse to subject themselves to it, should be asking themselves how they can continue to be participants, when a passenger's only alternative -- besides walking away -- is to be subjected to an aggressive, privacy-invading, dignity-compromising pat-down. TSA employees who stay on the job in the midst of all of this are telling us a lot about themselves, and it's not complimentary.

The bottom line is that millions of passengers are being forced to endure deliberately high-visibility searches which, if they improve security at all, only do so marginally, while obviously more effective measures, including logic-based profiling, remain sidelined.