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TSA aggression

Colin Littlefield | Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Anyone who wishes to fly in the United States must now be prepared to consent to either a virtual strip search or a pat-down in which TSA screeners touch a person’s genitals. Both types of searches are utterly intolerable and do nothing to actually increase security. Even more alarming is the general public’s willingness to uncritically surrender its dignity to the government’s latest form of security theater at airports.

Under the new program, TSA officers may order passengers to be scanned by machines which see through a person’s clothes and create an image of the person’s naked body. An agent who never sees the passengers in person views the images from a remote location, but this does not change the fact that body scans are literally the digital equivalent of strip searches. There is a serious risk, of course, that these nude images will be recorded in some way, despite TSA’s unconvincing protestations to the contrary. Moreover, the long-term safety of these machines has not been conclusively established.

Anyone who refuses a body scan will receive an “enhanced” pat-down, a misleading euphemism for an aggressive physical search which is supposed to be every bit as revealing as a scan. The level of touching involved in these new pat-downs has been described by some passengers as amounting to molestation. Thus, once the new screening methods have been completely phased in, TSA officers will either view travelers’ genitals or fondle them.

These techniques do not improve safety. A Government Accountability Office report found that body scanners might not have detected the underwear bomb which nearly brought down a Detroit-bound flight last Christmas. Even assuming for the sake of argument that these machines will prevent people from smuggling anything underneath their clothing, there are still many other ways for terrorists to defeat airport security. It is no secret, for instance, that TSA screeners have generally performed miserably when simulated bombs have been sent through security checkpoints, a fact of which al-Qaeda is surely aware. Moreover, not even the most sophisticated body scanner can detect weapons or explosives in body cavities, which is problematic because an al-Qaeda suicide bomber with explosives concealed in his rectum recently attempted to assassinate a Saudi prince. If a terrorist were to attempt a similar attack on an aircraft, would we allow TSA to conduct cavity searches on all who fly?

At most, these new screening measures present a truly minimal inconvenience for would-be terrorists, who will simply find other ways to carry out attacks. They also send an unmistakable message to the world that terrorism works. America’s enemies will surely be amused that Americans are so fearful that they are now effectively strip searching and groping one another at airports in the naïve belief that such measures will prevent another attack.

The threat posed by terrorism must not be minimized, but TSA’s patently demeaning and invasive screening techniques serve no purpose other than creating the illusion that security is better than it actually is. Too many people will unquestioningly accept whatever indignities the government imposes under the dangerously vague justification of national security, and law-abiding citizens ought not to be imaged in the nude, touched inappropriately, or otherwise violated as a prerequisite for flying. The very purpose of having constitutional protection from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government is to prevent the honor and dignity of the average person from being so egregiously defiled.

The American public must not blindly acquiesce to these Orwellian measures, which do not realistically make air travel any safer. It is only through maintained and emphatic public opposition that these measures will be meaningfully reformed.


Colin Littlefield


Fisher Hall

Nov. 18