Thursday, November 18, 2010

Thoughts on Airport Security

If you've seen some of my tweets recently, you'll know that I'm pretty upset about the new security screening measures that have been implemented at US airports in the past few weeks. For those of you who haven't seen the news about them, they are implementing two different new screening techniques. Like the previous security techniques, not everyone will have to go through these, but random passengers will be flagged for extra screening. In the past, that meant the flagged passengers would be checked with a hand-held metal detector, and sometimes a cursory pat-down. Now, however, the flagged passenger will have two options. They either need to go into an Advanced Imaging machine, which is a full-body x-ray that allows the security personnel to see under all their clothes and make sure nothing is hidden there. If they opt out of the x-ray machine, they will be subjected to an "enhanced pat-down," which involves the security personnel touching every part of their body. Every. Part. Here is a CNN article that summarizes a lot of the current debate.

I have several objections to these new measures, and I'm outlining them below:

1. Radiation = Potential Physical Health Risk
This is actually my weakest argument, so it might be strange that I'm listing it first... There's a method to my madness, so keep reading! If a person is flagged for extra security, they will be directed to the Advanced Imaging machine, which uses x-rays to allow security personnel to look under a person's clothes and see if they're hiding any dangerous items. There is obviously a privacy issue here, because this basically amounts to having a stranger scrutinize a picture of your naked body. However, I am also concerned about the radiation a person will receive in one of these machines. This is the TSA's website describing the x-ray machines and claiming their complete safety. This is a letter from the science faculty at UCSF expressing concern on this front, and I think it brings up some valid points. This is the responding letter from the FDA, which they claim answers all of the concerns from the first letter. I'm not a physicist or whatever you'd need to be to know the jargon, so I didn't understand much of the second letter, but I believe their claims that it answers the questions. However, it's common knowledge that too much radiation is harmful to the human body. So I would still be afraid for frequent travelers or people whose bodies are already weakened by age or illness - I'm just not convinced that it's completely safe for long-term use. Two major pilot's unions have also advised their airline personnel to avoid these machines, because pilots and airline personnel would definitely be the ones with most frequent exposure to them. That makes me nervous about their safety.

2. Personal Violation = Mental Health Risk
The people that choose not to go through one of the Advanced Imaging Machines, however, will be submitted to an "enhanced pat-down," which from reports I've seen amount to nothing less than sexual molestation. Here is one woman's account of her seriously disturbing encounter with airport security. She found it so traumatic that she is requesting the TSA to provide her with counseling services to deal with the emotional aftermath of the encounter. I saw on the news the story of one pilot who was so emotionally shaken after his physical violation at the security checkpoint, that he was no longer fit to fly his airplane. This is SERIOUSLY not ok.

3. Probability is Miniscule
I watch the news almost every night, so I consider myself fairly well-informed about the goings-on in threats to US air travel safety. To my knowledge there has only been one person who has ever made it onto a plane with an incendiary device hidden in private places - last year's Christmas Day Underwear Bomber. If there have been others, the security system that was already in place was sufficient to discover them. So is it really worth it to risk the physical and emotional health of millions of travelers as outlined in my first two points, not to mention completely violating their personal privacy, on the off chance that someone else may try something similar??

4. Won't Find Everything
I don't really know exactly where the Underwear Bomber was keeping his weapons, but I'm not convinced that even the new enhanced security measures would've found them. Neither the Advanced Imaging Technology nor the enhanced pat-downs would find something that a person is hiding inside a body cavity. Plus, not every passenger will be selected for the enhanced screening. PLUS, not every security line at every airport is equipped with the technology to do the advanced screenings. So the chances still seem like one-in-a-million that even the new enhanced measures would actually catch a would-be attacker.

5. Terrorists Still Win
This is what I feel is my most compelling argument against these enhanced security measures. I believe that a terrorist's chief aim is not death and destruction, but fear. Hence the name TERRORist. With these enhanced security measures, the TSA has made me exceedingly more afraid to fly than I ever was with the threat of a terrorist attack. And there are thousands of citizens who feel the same way I do about it, and are refusing to fly until the enhanced security measures are reversed. I know I certainly won't be flying unless there is absolutely no way it can be avoided. So since I, and thousands of others like me, am now afraid to fly, and our transportation opportunities are severely disrupted, and our airline industry will definitely suffer, and our freedoms and rights as American citizens are threatened, doesn't this just mean the terrorists still win? Seems like it to me.

I don't want to just complain about the current situation without offering a reasonable alternative. To me it makes a whole lot more sense to equip aircraft personnel to be able to handle any threats on their planes than to try to thoroughly screen every single passenger to prevent threats from coming on a plane. Not that the above "enhanced" measures even come close to doing this. But even if they did, they still involve traumatizing and violating a large number of ordinary citizens, almost all of which are completely innocent. So instead I say they need to seriously beef up the air marshal program, and why not have at least one air marshal on every single flight? And also, why not take advantage of the airline personnel that are already on the flight? Train pilots and flight attendants in awareness and defense. This is how the Underwear Bomber was foiled, and it just makes plain sense to me.


JDTapp said...

You didn't mention that they even make toddlers and young children go through the screenings.

We don't prevent murder at ANY cost, nor should we prevent airline bombings at ANY cost. El Al (Israel's airline) doesn't use these measures and they're much more effective at catching would-be bombers than we are--and they get much more experience with threads on a daily basis than our TSA does.

We pay tax dollars for the TSA and Homeland Security. Call your congressman and senator and demand accountability.

Jenn-Jenn, the Mother Hen said...

Playing devil's advocate here, I'd like to point out to JDTapp that the TSA announced on Tuesday that they will not use the enhanced screening measures on anyone under the age of 12.

shelly said...

One has to wonder, what exactly are they hoping to accomplish? It's already been proven that neither the new x ray machines or the "enhanced" pat down would have stopped the underwear bomber last year. It makes me worry what's next!