Scanned but not searched

I flew out to California last week to visit my brother over the Thanksgiving holidays, and went through the Transportation Security Administration’s new scanners on the way out from Rochester.  Going through the scanner didn’t bother me, and the TSA seems to have learned to move people through the lines at a more rapid place.  I don’t know, and don’t much care, what the person on the other end the scan saw on the view screen.  I am a grumpy 73-year-old man, not a modest 17-year-old girl.

The “enhanced searches” of passengers who are randomly selected or opt out of the scanning process are another matter.  I didn’t experience or witness any of these, but there are a lot of reports of women being groped by men, small children subjected to intimate searches by strangers, and people with physical handicaps subject to gross humiliation.

My questions about the whole-body scanners stem from the fact that the Department of Homeland Security has adopted this expensive new technology based on manufacturers’ claims, without independent testing.  Michael Chertoff, the former Secretary of Homeland Security, now represents these manufacturers through his consulting firm; this does not increase my confidence.

I wonder how rigorously the scanners are tested to make sure passengers are not subject to excess radiation.  I once had a good friend who tested radiation equipment in hospitals, to make sure the exact required dose of radiation was delivered every time.  If he had once made a mistake, he would never have been able to work again.  Are airport scanners, which are subject to much heavier use, subject to the same rigorous testing?  I seldom travel by air more than once a year, but I would worry if I were a regular traveler.

Click on TSA Anti-Rant for a defense (with qualifications) of TSA scanning policy by Kevin Drum of Mother Jones.

Click on Passengers Stories of Recent Travel for accounts of abusive searches compiled by the American Civil Liberties Union

Click on Rush Holt letter for concerns of the chairman of the House of Representatives’ Select Intelligence Oversight Panel.

Click on Know Your Passenger Rights for recommendations to airline passengers.

Click on President’s Message to U.S. Airline Pilots Association for recommendations to airline pilots.

Click on GAO: No formal testing for whole-body scanners for background on lack of testing of the machines.

Click on Chertoff’s Scans and Bio ID for background on Michael Chertoff’s business interests.

For me personally being scanned was a minor part of the unpleasant experience of contemporary airplane travel.  Like most Americans, I have learned since 2001 to comply meekly with authority, to remove my shoes and belt quietly and efficiently and to refrain from saying or doing anything that might attract attention.  Then on to an airplane where I sit in a cramped seat for a couple of hours with no meal.  Fortunately I can be happy, or at least contented, so long as I have something interesting to read.

I remember when I enjoyed airplane travel.   I enjoyed sitting next to a window and looking out, and appreciating the miracle of safely being tens of thousands of feet above the surface of the earth.  I enjoyed the comfortable seats, and the airplane meals.  I am older and less resilient than I was then, so that is part of the reason I enjoy things less.  Another is that I am a cheapskate.  Given a choice between cheap and convenient, I will usually choose the cheap. Though not always, I check my bags rather than deal with carry-on baggage.

As for civil liberties, there is a provision in the Bill of Rights about “unreasonable searches and seizures.”  But being subject to a full-body scan is, for me, a minor matter in an era when the President of the United States can, on his sole authority based on secret evidence, have people killed or imprisoned, and that government agencies, based on their sole discretion, can eavesdrop on your telephone and Internet communications and bar people from air travel for inexplicable reasons.

It is ironic that some of the people who think President Obama is a socialist, fascist, Communist, radical Muslim, terrorist-sympathizing would-be dictator are comfortable with him having this power.  My view of President Obama is that he is a human being, and very few human beings can be trusted with the temptations of absolute power without accountability.

The reason for the big uproar over scans and searches is that the government is infringing on the liberties of people who are not dark-skinned, don’t have Arabic-sounding names and don’t wear non-Western clothing.

Someday, somewhere there is going to be another significant terrorist attack on Americans.  It may be the day I put this post on my web log; it may be 30 years from now.  We accept that absolute safety is impossible in most walks of life.  As automobile drivers, we accept reasonable restrictions – speed limits, no drunken driving, seat belts – for a reasonable degree of safety, but we know that a certain number of people will die on the highway each year no matter what we do.  It is the price we pay for driving.

During the 20th century, we Americans never were attacked to a significant degree on our own soil.  Wars were something we went overseas to fight, not something that happened in our homeland.  Now this has changed.  If we think that invading foreign countries is necessary for our security and future, if we accept that deaths of a certain number of unarmed civilians in those countries is an inevitable byproduct of war, then we also have to accept a certain risk that people in those countries will strike back at us.  If the policy is right and necessary, then we have to accept the fact of risk.  If the risk isn’t worth it, then maybe the policy is wrong.

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