People keep e-mailing or tweeting to ask why we haven’t written about this, but I don’t know what there is to say that isn’t completely obvious. (I know, I know: “That’s never stopped you before.”) No one wants their kid getting a genital patdown from a federal security guard, but then, no one wants their kid plunging 35,000 feet to the ground either after some jihadi degenerate cooks up a PETN bomb mid-air and sets it off. Remember Flight 253? Abdulmutallab had the bomb components sewn into his undies, which presents a challenge to finding the goods before the would-be bomber boards the plane. You can either run them through a full-body scanner, subject them to an “enhanced patdown,” a.k.a. crotch inspection, or … what? I’m open to alternatives, but you and I both know that for all the complaining going on right now, all it’ll take is one 757 exploding and suddenly airline passengers will have strange new respect for showing TSA screeners their junk.
Unions representing U.S. Airways pilots, American Airlines pilots, and some flight attendants are advising their members to skip the full-body scans, even if it means that their genitals are touched. Air travelers are speaking out online, with a woman saying in a YouTube video her breasts were “twisted,” and ExpressJet pilot Michael Roberts emerging as an instant hero after he rejected both the body scanning and “enhanced pat-downs” options and was unceremoniously ejected from the security line from Memphis International Airport…
TSA’s official blogger, who uses the apparent pseudonym Blogger Bob, went so far as to say this week that: “There is no fondling, squeezing, groping, or any sort of sexual assault taking place at airports. You have a professional workforce carrying out procedures they were trained to perform to keep aviation security safe.”…
TSA has “always done pat-downs,” but until recently they haven’t been so aggressive, says Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel at the ACLU in Washington, D.C. “The pat-downs never used to go up a woman’s skirt.”
“It’s become troubling,” Calabrese says. “You’ve got these controversial naked strip search machines that they’re rolling out at airports across America. And if you choose not to go through the naked strip search machine, you’re subject to this (level of intrusive physical contact). It seems punitive. It seems designed to drive you to the naked strip search machine.”
One passenger whose young son had his groin patted down with the back of a TSA screener’s hand told Reuters, “We spend my child’s whole life telling him that only mom, dad and a doctor can touch you in your private area, and now we have to add TSA agent and that’s just wrong. At some point the terrorists have won.” Fair enough, although of course the big “win” terrorists are looking for is plummeting fuselage, not awkward moments in line in front of the metal detector. Meanwhile, Scott Ott argues that the most effective countermeasures against terrorists are the passengers and crew onboard the planes, not TSA’s dopey security theater. There’s some truth in that — the heroes of Flight 93 saved the Capitol and it was passengers who subdued both Richard Reid and Abdulmutallab — but I don’t see how it advances the ball on the privacy/security conundrum. Metal detectors are a very slight invasion of privacy but surely we wouldn’t do away with them on the assumption that passengers will handle a terrorist with a gun once the plane’s in the air.
The best argument in all this, I think, is the boss emeritus’s point that the feds are trying to atone for inexcusable gaps at the macro level of security by tightening procedures at the micro level. That was another, even more important lesson of Flight 253: There were plenty of red flags about Abdulmutallab’s intentions before he got on the plane, and yet bureaucratic inefficiency among counterterror agencies prevented anyone from doing anything until it was too late. Do something about that and you can afford to worry less about crotch-patting at the terminal.