Say no to invasive TSA scanners and pat-downs, for the sake of sanity

Imagine for the moment that you are an attractive young female (well, some of you don’t really have to imagine) or look like a Middle Easterner (or both). You’re traveling to see your elderly grandmother in Florida. While standing in line in the airport security checkpoint, dreaming about freshly baked cookies, your arm is abruptly grabbed by a uniformed man who says, “Step over here, please,” and leads you to a large machine. He asks you to step inside and put your hands over your head, and that’s when you recognize it as a “backscatter” or full-body scanner, and realize that another agent is inside the machine, staring at an X-ray image that views through the clothes and bags of travelers. You protest. “I don’t want to do this. You can’t make me. Why are you targeting me?” The agent grimaces, and yells to another agent standing by: “We’ve got an opt-out here.” The second agent leads you to another area, still quite visible to other travelers, and tells you to raise your arms. He pats you down at levels that would usually be considered a felony, taking time on the genital areas to make sure you understand that you should have just chosen the backscatter. After a thorough groping, he says, “Alright, thanks. You may continue.” You pick up your bag and hustle through into the terminal, fully shaken from experiencing the disgrace we call the Transportation Security Administration. The TSA, established in November 2001 by George W. Bush, is perhaps the biggest, costliest invasion of privacy and perversion of sanity that has passed Congress in recent years. It has not succeeded (as in caught a potential terrorist) a single time in its nine years: twenty-four people who have at least attempted a terrorist act soon after have passed through its checkpoints unscathed, including would-be Detroit bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Perhaps its most important contributions to American society are not security and domestic tranquility, but harried passengers and the opportunity to share TSA horror stories on the Internet. And there are plenty of both. Airline workers’ forums and social news sites have recently blown up with complaints and stories: the elderly, wheelchair-bound grandmother forced to stand up and be harshly groped; the SkyWest pilot who watched as an agent selected his teenage daughter for the full-body scanner then radioed “We’ve got a cutie for you” to the monitoring agent; the 6-year old in Charlotte, NC who was in tears being strip-searched, his father admonished for comforting him. It goes on and on, each one more despicable than the next. What are the fatal flaws of the system? Firstly, it is reactive rather than preventative. Someone tries to use liquids in bottles of shampoo? No more shampoo in carry-ons, and let’s ban Coke cans too. A bomb inside a shoe? Take those Nikes off when you pass through. Underwear bomb? Drop trou and step inside this scanner, please. Item after banned item is added to the list, one by one, and the searches get harsher. Meanwhile, the TSA is too busy searching your personal items to look you straight in the eye. Why is that a bad thing? Let’s look at Israel’s airport security, often considered the best in the world. Despite the fact that they have a far higher terrorism risk, their system focuses on behavior, not items, and has not let a single traveler with malicious intent go through in recent history, and aims to get passengers from the road to the airport lounge in 25 minutes or less. They do this with several rounds of behavioral monitoring: asking each traveler a couple of questions, and then watching their faces for signs of distress or anxiety. It’s much more effective than random pat-downs and pornographic X-ray scanners, most experts agree. The second flaw of the TSA system is that it relies on its agents remaining courteous and professional, and following its guidelines: no scanning children under 12, pat-downs must be by an agent of the same gender, selection must be random, and so on. But, as could be expected when no one is watching the watchmen, they go “corrupt”: choosing attractive women and young children, ignoring gender rules. Letting agents run free with either the full-frontal nudity scanner or the genital groping is too much power, and unnecessary power at that. It’s no surprise, then, that tens of thousands of pilots and flight attendants represented by unions have refused to go through with the scans. They understand that the new procedures are ridiculous invasions of privacy that don’t benefit anyone. Hopefully the government figures this out, and abolishes the ineffective and costly TSA, but for now, I guess we’ll all just have to step inside the scanner. Or get groped–you have to remember that America is all about that freedom to choose.