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More on airport screening

As I noted last week, I believe the airport security routine is excessive and ultimately irrational. And so, of course, I oppose the latest stepping-up in intrusiveness - the new imagining scanners, and the mandatory pat-downs for those who choose to avoid the scanner.

But before getting too carried away with the protests against the latest airport security measures and the apparent wave of libertarianism taking off among the public, I think it's worth bearing in mind some points:

  •  For the vast majority of travellers, the scanners are a non-event. Polls by Gallup and CBS News find that 80 percent of Americans accept the new procedures. The administration cites that one-half of 1 percent of the 34 million passengers who travelled in or to the U.S. last week were subject to pat-downs. In a New York Times report today, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) supervisor at the Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport says that fewer than 3 percent request pat-downs at his airport.
  • So, if most people are supportive, or passively non-opposed, why has this become such an issue in the media? One reason is that Thanksgiving is on Thursday and the next two days are the busiest air travel days of the year. And thus this is something of a mini-silly season in America: Obama has been out of the country, Congress is away, and nothing will happen until next week. This doesn't make the issue insignificant; indeed many important underlying tensions surface at such times - think of how the Ground Zero Mosque issue raged on during the summer. But it should be kept in perspective, and there is a good chance it will die down in the near future.
  • The other main reason for the media focus has to do with the Republicans, who are the shouting about this issue the loudest. They are seizing what they see as an opening to attack "big government" again. It is remarkable to see conservatives such as Charles Krauthammer (here) - who were if anything bigger proponents of the Patriot Act and all other infringements on liberty following 9/11 (and still are), and who called for greater clampdowns following last year's Christmas Day bomber - now bashing the TSA and the Obama administration in order to score petty political points. As it happens, Krauthammer's brave stand is actually very narrow, as he would prefer that the TSA concentrate on the dodgy-looking types like the "Nigerian nut job" at the airport rather than respectable people like himself. As Wendy Kaminer notes, his rallying cry is effectively "Don't touch my junk, touch his."
  • In response to conservatives making the running on this, liberals have jumped right in to defend the TSA and Obama, because it is an iron-law that anything the Republicans are against they must support, and vice-versa. And so Kevin Drum in the lefty Mother Jones says "all the crap that TSA goes through actually seems pretty clearly directed at improving the security of travel." It is remarkable how issues that appear to have potential to break out of narrow political stances get sucked up into petty bun-fights.
  • The campaign against scanners and pat-downs is rapidly promoting a lot of backward arguments. The potential for bad doses of radiation comes up all the time, reinforcing pre-existing health panics. There are overblown references to how traumatizing and humiliating it is to be patted down: as one letter-writer to the Times puts it, "while she is handling my breasts and genitals, I would rather the T.S.A. employee think, 'innocent civilian and possible sexual assault survivor, whose dignity I respect.'" And there are also derogatory remarks made about TSA "goons", "glorified security guards", and barely-concealed references to how uneducated they are (as if a pat-down from an educated person would be much better). There is an assumption that these guards are exactly the types that would get their rocks off on viewing naked images. 
  • The "National Opt-Out Day" protest is tomorrow. This campaign is against both the new scanners and pat-downs, and yet suggests the way to demonstrate your opposition to them is to... ask to be patted down. This makes no sense. Furthermore, if people do follow this advice, the lines - on one of the busiest travel days - will get backed up. Will this lead to a useful conversation among passengers about the merits of the new security measures? I doubt it: it will mainly piss people off who already enduring one of worst times to travel.

There are bigger problems with airport security than scanners and pat-downs; it's not as if the existing procedures these past nine years have been reasonable. There is still a lot to be cleared up about this issue, and the foundation for solid opposition is to recognize that the fearful "war on terror" (even though they don't use that term any more) is no way to run a society.

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