A New Form of Homegrown Terrorism

The plan to subject air travelers to the indignity of having their uncovered bodies peered at by airport screeners in the quest to find explosives hidden away under clothing is nothing short of insanity. The ACLU’s concern that this intrusion into the privacy of air travelers — the use of “backscatter” x-ray machines that can see through clothing — will spread to other institutions such as public schools misses the point: There are better ways to search for bombs and weapons.

By now, anyone who is at all familiar with the threats we face daily from the potential deployment of explosive, chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons is aware that we will be lucky to prevent such events from occurring if terrorists are determined to use them. We have recently heard from the Department of Homeland Security that our screening technology is still unable to detect most of weapons in the terrorist arsenal – even after almost four years since 9/11 and the expenditure of billions of dollars on equipment. Many will argue that the reason for our failure to develop the ability to detect such weapons is the clumsiness of our security officials and lawmakers. Instead of supporting promising technologies, they tolerate old ones which don’t work but which, for reasons unrelated to security, they continue to employ.

Some might say that, by identifying those among us who, according to sound intelligence, are most likely to attack us, we reduce the likelihood of such attacks far better than any technology can. Others believe that with proper protocols we can filter out threats to our infrastructure before they gain access to targets. And then there are those who would have us believe that only by being stripped of our privacy and our dignity can we enjoy the freedom to travel and the continued blessings that our democracy has brought us during this war on terrorism

Now is the time to ask: Are we really so frightened of the suicide bomber that we are willing to stand naked before government screeners in exchange for entering the sterile areas of our airports? Are we convinced that, of all of the available ways to attack America, terrorists are most likely to deliver the blow by carrying weapons on board on their persons? Are those at Homeland Security so convinced that, despite the cost to human dignity and privacy that the new x-ray vision technology presents, it’s worth the security benefit that they will offer up their wives, mothers, and daughters as the first to experience the program? And if the use of such technology is not being planned for all of us, what probable cause will trigger the need to expose some of us to it?

In airports across America, hundreds of thousands of workers with direct access to aircraft, cargo, and baggage enter each day without being subjected to the same screening that passengers, flight crews, and others must submit to daily. The rationale offered for the exception to this rule is that they undergo background checks. If passengers undergo background checks, will they be exempt from having to submit to the new “backscatter” searches? Flight crews are subjected to the same background checks, yet they too must go through screening — are they to be strip-searched along with the rest of us?

We have been misled all along about the level of security being provided against terrorist attacks in aviation. We have seen repeatedly that our screeners fail to identify weapons and explosives in both carry-on bags and checked baggage. Are we now to believe that their ability to identify these dangers will improve because they are viewing a peep show?

There is no doubt that there is a threat to air travelers from explosives and other weapons that may be used by terrorists in terminals and on board airliners, but we have not yet begun to employ existing technologies for identifying them. We have made no attempt to raise the standards of our screeners through the enhanced training that they need to competently perform their jobs. There has not even been the acknowledgement by Homeland Security of the threat presented by industry workers, despite repeated reports of their involvement in criminal conduct in the workplace. But rather than employ the needed remedial action for plugging existing holes in security, we focus once again on air travelers for new experimentation on how to prevent acts of terrorism. This time, we will strip them naked without regard to standards of decency and consideration for their modesty in yet another disingenuous quest to protect us from terrorism. As a nation, have we no shame?

Terrorists can no longer enter the flight deck to hijack an airliner, so weapons have become much less of an issue. The ability to bring unassembled explosive material on board still remains a problem –one that can be solved by available technologies that can chemically identify explosive material by its composition rather than through visual observation. We must ask ourselves how we can justify the abuse we are prepared to deliver to the sensibilities of our citizens by displaying the most intimate parts of the human anatomy on x-ray screens in the nation’s 429 commercial airports, when so little potential benefit stands to be gained.

Given the continuing glaring deficiencies of our aviation security system, the choice to go forward with this distasteful and cynical plan only adds to the already numerous questions of propriety raised about TSA.

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