Thursday, November 18, 2010


OK, so San Diego based would be traveler John Tynor doesn’t want his “junk” touched and thus has become the latest anti-government folk hero via the internet and media. Anyone who has been through an airport lately can attest to the fact that things have gotten progressively more inconvenient as failed terrorist attacks on aircraft have occurred. Since the post 9/11 attempts by the “shoe bomber” and then the “underwear bomber” failed, perhaps the flying public has gotten complacent or perhaps it’s the schooling principal employed by fish i.e. if you are in a big enough group your individual chances of becoming a victim of some predator are greatly reduced. Whatever the underlying motive, for some people inconvenience is not to be tolerated. For others it presents yet another opportunity to get ideological.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has filed a federal lawsuit seeking to suspend the latest technology in airport scanners. There claim: such scanning is “unlawful”, “invasive” and “ineffective” and the Transportation Security Administration has violated the Administrative Procedures Act, the Privacy Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.

That should just about cover it. Of course lawyers are happy but they might have a difficult time overcoming the obvious flaws in this shotgun type of accusation.

The Privacy Act of 1974 specifically governs “the personally identifiable information about individuals that is maintained in systems of records by federal agencies.” But the pictures (records) produced by airport scanners are neither personally identifiable nor kept as records. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act seeks to protect the “free exercise” of religion from government regulation but it contains two exceptions: if the “burden” on religious exercise is necessary in the “furtherance of a compelling national interest and that the rule must be the “ least restrictive” way to further the government interest.”

It will be hard to argue that preventing the terrorist bombing of a commercial airliner filled with civilians is not a “compelling national interest.” Since the “junk touching” episode has become the center of the airport screening controversy it seems clear that the much less invasive and less time consuming procedure of electronic scanning is indeed the “least restrictive”. TSA officials have thus said that making a religious argument against scanning or pat downs won’t be recognized. The government of Abu Dhabi disagrees. It has said it won’t employ these procedures because they are “unIslamic”. What better recommendation for their use could there be? The Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure is specifically connected to law enforcement arrest procedures. Scanning and patting down in airports are both voluntary conditions of air travel under the regulations of the FAA and TSA which travelers agree to when they purchase a ticket.

Unfortunately, the issue has become just more grist for the sensationalism seeking cable media and factually challenged internet users. The underlying issue with electronic scanning is safety. Opponents claim it is not safe but provide little if any scientific data to support that claim. The closest they come are opinions by a scattering of individual scientists whose opinions are littered with words such as “possible and potential”.

Dr. David Brenner, Chief of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University says “individual risk is very low” but if 800 million airline passengers are screened, it “might imply” a “potential” public health or societal risk. That’s not too threatening.

University of California biochemist David Agard says scanners have “the potential” to induce chromosome damage and that can lead to cancer. But he doesn’t talk about dosages.

The British Civil Aviation Authority says 5000 scans per person annually can be conducted safely. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration reports that:

“General-use x-ray security screening systems deliver an extremely low dose of ionizing radiation to the person being screened. The radiation dose is so low that there is no need to limit the number of individuals screened or, in most cases, the number of screenings an individual can have in a year.” And that : “In 42 minutes of ordinary living, a person receives more radiation from naturally occurring sources than from screening with any general-use x-ray security system.”

“Millimeter wave security systems which comply with the limits set in the applicable national non-ionizing radiation safety standard cause no known adverse health effects.”

Of course some people will never accept scientific data provided by the government that disproves their preferred conspiracy theory notions. It is all reminiscent of the 1950’s claim by some that fluoridation of drinking water to prevent tooth decay was a communist plot to brainwash the citizenry with a mind bending drug.

Shepard Smith of Fox News offers this bit of illogic. The screening/pat down system has never turned up any explosives so it isn’t needed. The simple concept of deterrence seems to have escaped the usually astute Shepard. That is, the existence of the screening procedures is responsible for the lack of attempts by would be terrorists to board planes with explosives. (The “shoe bomber” boarded before shoes were routinely examined and the “underwear bomber’s flight originated in Europe and before the latest scanners were in place.)

Blogger Margery Eagan typifies the rhetorical overreach:

“So here are your airport choices: submit to sexual molestation or spread your legs, hands over head, and get radiated while some TSA guys down the hall check out your naked body.”

“Sexual molestation”? A pat down while your fully dressed, in private if you wish, by a person of you own sex wearing surgical gloves? Eagan may inadvertently be disclosing some of her private fantasies here.

“get radiated”? Sure at about the same level as your last visit to the dentist.

“TSA guys down the hall check out your naked body.”? The scans are quickly reviewed by an individual member of your own sex, then permanently deleted. Besides, if anyone thinks that the ghost like, hairless, faceless and nameless images produced by these scanning machines are sexually exciting they are in serious need of several sessions with Dr. Ruth. Eagan may think her electronic image is center fold quality but . . .

Like all government programs this one needs to be modified by the application of some common sense. The TSA really doesn’t need to confiscate your tooth paste and it makes no sense at all for pilots to be subjected to repetitive screening for explosives. Why would they go the trouble and risk of attempting to bring these items on board when they are just minutes away from being in control of the airplane. A suicidal pilot can simply dive the plane into the ground. Even if the other pilot is not ready for permanent membership in the Big Admirals Club in the sky, a fight in a locked cockpit would usually provide the same result. Some kind of tamper proof ID should be enough.

Much of the problem could be relieved by another common sense regime of profiling which would seek to identify potential terrorists rather than just the terrorist’s tools; or even reverse profiling that would exempt obviously low risk travelers such as the elderly, children (already children under 12 are exempt), and pregnant females. The opposition to "profiling" of any type is ironic since it is the position of the same liberal “privacy at any cost” groups like the ACLU that are opposed to scanning and pat downs. The idea that millions of travelers have to be inconvenienced and possibly put at risk in order not to slightly offend members of a group which includes the perpetrators of almost all international terrorism defies common sense. People of Middle Eastern descent should accept the reality of the situation since presumably they are hoping to arrive at their destination safely like everyone else

John Tynor, Shepard Smith and Margery Eagan may prefer to just give the TSA a wave and a smile as they board their next plane. The question remains if they would feel the same way about the guy in the turban standing behind them with a one way ticket.

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