One month ago I drank some extremely noxious laxatives, and went into a small room where a man stuck a camera up my rectum and took a series of photos. It was an invasive and unpleasant procedure, one which I repeat every five years, thanks to advice from my doctor and two friends who have survived colon cancer. I'd rather have a colonoscopy than colon cancer. Whether I want to go through a similar procedure every time I take an airplane is a related question, one we may face in our immediate future. The path that leads to that hypothetical question starts with a media scan of the new TSA (Transportation Security Association) scanners and the policy that comes with them..
The "naked-scanners" are now in place at many US airports, and the plan is to have a thousand installed by the end of 2011. A bill to make them mandatory at all airports by 2013 is currently before the Senate. But at present would-be air travellers have a choice: they can be seen naked by air agents or be "patted down". There are some good reasons not to want either of them, but you won't get on the flight without one. We'll start with the scanners, which have three really basic problems: safety, privacy, and functionality.
In regards to safety, Dr. Michael Love (John Hopkins) says,
"They say the risk is minimal, but statistically someone is going to get skin cancer from these X-rays....No exposure to X-ray is considered beneficial. We know X-rays are hazardous, but we have a situation at the airports where people are so eager to fly that they will risk their lives in this manner,"
The government says the scanners have been "tested extensively", but refuses to give out any details about the amount of x-rays that are actually being used. Two major pilots' unions (about 16,000 pilots) are among those who somehow weren't reassured by this, and recommended that their members not get scanned, saying, "frequent exposure to TSA-operated scanner devices may subject pilots to significant health risks."
You know those airport scanners that render you essentially naked? The ones that don't catch bomb-making materials? The ones that are supposed to be staffed by infallible and absolutely trustworthy airport workers who'll never, ever abuse your privacy with them? Turns out they're vulnerable to a sophisticated, impossible-to-predict technical attack: a guard was caught taking pictures of the screen while a female colleague was passing through the scanner. Who'd have guessed that was possible?
As many people have pointed out, these scanners can't see through skin, so explosives can be hidden in body cavities. Gizmodo ran a story on how "British intelligence service MI5 has discovered that Al Qaeda female suicide bombers are getting explosive charges inside their breasts, using a similar procedure to breast augmentation", a story they suspect is being spread by the companies selling the scanners. The more such stories get discussed, the more airport inspections may have in common with colonoscopies in the future.
But the alternative to the scanners isn't great. One pilot who followed his union's recommendation and opted instead for the "pat down" "experienced a frisking that . . . left him unable to function as a crew member." No further details are shared there, though they are on the "Our Little Chatterboxes" website (a blog for new mothers). On a post that has gone viral this week, a new mother describes experiences which left her suing the TSA for sexual assault.
[The agent] then said, "I need to reach in and feel along the inside of your waistband."
She felt along my waistline, moved behind me, then proceeded to feel both of my buttocks. She reached from behind in the middle of my buttocks towards my vagina area.
She did not tell me that she was going to touch my buttocks, or reach forward to my vagina area.
She then moved in front of my and touched the top and underneath portions of both of my breasts.
She did not tell me that she was going to touch my breasts.
... She then felt my inner thighs and my vagina area, touching both of my labia.
She did not tell me that she was going to touch my vagina area or my labia.
Here is why I was sexually assaulted. She never told me the new body search policy. She never told me that she was going to touch my private parts. She never told me when or where she was going to touch me. She did not inform me that a private screening was available. She did not inform me of my rights that were a part of these new enhanced pat down procedures.
...I am speaking out against the TSA and share my sexual assault case to ensure that this does not happen to anyone else, anywhere.
I will not be a silent victim of sexual assault by a TSA agent.
And of course if you refuse the pat down (and in some airports that don't have the scanners, the pat downs are mandatory) then you don't fly. John Tyner in San Diego videoed his encounter with the TSA, and both that video and his write up of it have gone viral as well.
A male agent (it was a female who had directed me to the backscatter machine in the first place), came and waited for me to get my bags and then directed me over to the far corner of the area for screening. After setting my things on a table, he turned to me and began to explain that he was going to do a "standard" pat down. (I thought to myself, "great, not one of those gropings like I've been reading about".) After he described, the pat down, I realized that he intended to touch my groin. After he finished his description but before he started the pat down, I looked him straight in the eye and said, "if you touch my junk, I'll have you arrested." He, a bit taken aback, informed me that he would have to involve his supervisor because of my comment.... I told her that I would be willing to submit to a walk through the metal detector as over 80% of the rest of the people were doing, but I would not be groped. The supervisor, then offered to go get her supervisor...
But beyond personal dignity and privacy, there are two really, really basic problems with this whole procedure. It's not necessary, and it doesn't stop terrorists.
I haven't forgotten the horror of 9/11, but a fine "Ask the Pilot" piece on Salon looks at the hijacking of planes in the 1980s, and asks,
"Look again at that list above. All of those tragedies, in a four-year span, with some of the attacks actually overlapping. Try to imagine a similar spell today. Could we handle even a fraction of such disaster?In the 1980s we did not overreact. We did not stage ill-fated invasions of distant countries. People did not cease traveling and the airline industry did not fall into chaos. ... "The terrorists have won" is a refrain I don't like using. It's sensationalist and ignores inherent complexities. But for the moment, I can't think of a better way of putting it."
Contrast the number of deaths from airborne terrorists over the past ten years (3000) to the murder rate in Detroit last year (379), and (using total flyers relative to Detroit's population), flying is safer than living in Detroit. The Washington Examiner says, "We haven't put the entire U.S. on lockdown -- or even murder capitals like Detroit, New Orleans and Baltimore. While reducing the murder rate to zero is very desirable, we also understand that the costs, in terms of liberty and resources, are too great. But when it comes to air travel, 9/11 seems to have stripped away our ability to put things in perspective."
And most damming of all, this won't stop any terrorists. Not just because the scanners don't detect body cavities, but for a far more obvious strategic reason. Imagine you're coaching a football team, and you've just scored on a run around the right end. Your opponent, the next time you get the ball, lines up all his defence on the right side of the field. What do you do? You run to the left. Or look at France, which in response to World War One, erected the hugely powerful and "impregnable" Maginot line along the German/France border. In World War II, the Germans swept into Belgium, bypassing the Maginot line, and France fell in weeks. So why would Al-Qaida now try to hijack a plane, rather than bomb a major Christmas shopping mall, or a football stadium, or a nuclear power reactor upwind from a major city?
The kind of security theatre TSA is mounting at airports does nothing to diminish the threat of terrorist attacks. The Washington Examiner points out, "But this is government we're talking about. A program or product doesn't need to be effective, it only needs to have a good lobby. And the naked-scanner lobby is small but well-connected." If you want more information about that lobby, WC Varones' blog lays it out by the numbers:
How our government works:
1) Get a position in the government.
2) Hype up some scare and advocate a solution to it
3) Sell/convince the government on your proposed solution, leave your government position, and partner up with the company that provides that same solution.
4) Sit back and enjoy your new money.
Michael Chertoff, while he was the Head of Homeland Security under Bush, advocated and pushed for installation and implementation of these new full-body scanners at our airports. Once he was out of "public service"...guess which company owns a large manufacturer of backscatter x-ray devices? Give up? The Chertoff Group which is a security consulting agency...
The BBC has a superb series of three one hour films looking at the way encouraging fear of terrorists is a useful political way of encouraging people to give up power to politicians. The opening to the film says,
"Instead of delivering dreams, politicians now promise to protect us from nightmares. They say that they will rescue us from dreadful dangers that we cannot see and do not understand. And the greatest danger of all is international terrorism. A powerful and sinister network, with sleeper cells in countries across the world. A threat that needs to be fought by a war on terror. But much of this threat is a fantasy, which has been exaggerated and distorted by politicians. It's a dark illusion that has spread unquestioned through governments around the world, the security services, and the international media."
So what can be done to stop this craziness? On November 24th, (the day before Thanksgiving, and the busiest travel day of the year) a group has scheduled "National Opt-Out Day", and is encouraging passengers to refuse both the scanners and the pat downs. Whatever your views, that will be a great day to avoid flying if you really need to get somewhere. There are websites devoted to mocking the scanners: the funniest may be a livejournal site that features a wonderful "TSA Checkpoint" warning sign, or Despairwear, with TSA tee shirts like "Your naked photos are safe with us." A great editorial image is here. There are a lot of people organizing at flywithdignity.org. There's a website with a petition to ask US politicians to get rid of these monstrosities. And there are a lot of Facebook groups trying to make friends and influence people.
Myself, I'm trying to avoid any flight that would take me into or out of a US airport. And I keep remembering Ben Franklin's prescient saying, "Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."