Scanning for Terrorists Fairly and Effectively

Sam Fulwood III looks at the crossroads of aviation and commerce, civil liberties, and public safety—the new airport security procedures.

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A woman undergoes a pat-down during TSA security screening, Friday, November 19, 2010, at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle. (AP/Ted S. Warren)
A woman undergoes a pat-down during TSA security screening, Friday, November 19, 2010, at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle. (AP/Ted S. Warren)

I travel a great deal on commercial airliners but I can’t remember the last time I noticed the signs at the airport warning against cracking jokes about hidden bombs in suitcases or weapons in fanny packs. Surely those bulletins are still prominently displayed at the security gates and ticket counters but I’m probably overlooking them because of the clutter of warnings about the Transportation Security Administration’s new and intrusive physical screening policies at the nation’s airports.

Federal officials say the best way for them to ferret out hidden bombs on a traveler’s person is to get intimate with them at the boarding gates. Since 2007, some airports have installed full-body scanners which make X-ray-like images of the folds and contours of the human body. But that’s not the worst of it. In some cases, when the images show something suspicious, TSA officials may use open palms to touch genitalia and other private body areas.

News reports of these new security measures brought angry reactions from some air travelers. Notably airline pilots objected, saying the security measures were unnecessary for them. Others complained the procedures went too far, lumping people deemed unlikely to be terrorists—the elderly, women with children, airline pilots, and flight crews—among those who really might be, as if anyone could really tell the difference among the multiethnic variety of terrorists willing to target innocent civilians.

And it is here, at the grounded crossroads of aviation and commerce, that civil liberties and public safety collide with government power ostensibly designed for our mutual protection. Indeed, one poll suggests that four in five Americans actually support the use of full-body airport scanners.

Of course, no one wants to be inconvenienced. Ask Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that she wouldn’t want the TSA groping her at the airport. “Not if I could avoid it,” she said. “No. I mean, who would?”

Ah, there’s the rub. If Hillary Clinton doesn’t like it, why should I? The anger over increasingly intrusive air security policies is yet one more brick in constructing a wall separating the people from their government. The real dilemma confronting the federal transportation officials is convincing a diverse nation of Americans to trust that its government treats every one of them fairly. Any government policy or action, no matter how distasteful, can be embraced if the public deems it necessary and fairly applied to all citizens. Think taxes or military service in time of war. Americans always debate who should pay how much and who should serve, but in the end there is an acknowledged shared sacrifice, a civic responsibility, which produces greater, mutual benefits to all.

Indeed, this being America, where people are free and encouraged to complain about every inconvenience, it’s easy to find the loud voices of rabble-rousers who blame the government for any personal discomfort. Yet they want the benefits just the same. Air passenger John Tyner is the face of this dissenting crowd. His YouTube demand that government not "touch my junk" has created the catchphrase of those who feel federal authority has treaded too intimately into private parts of their lives.

But what is the alternative?

Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer would prefer to racially or ethnically profile for suspected terrorists. Arguing against fact and reason that the types of people who would blow up an airplane are “narrow, concrete, uniquely definable and universally known,” Krauthammer equates Tyner with “Don’t Tread on Me” patriots and urges the nation to revolt against the government’s safety procedures.

As if some sort of racial, ethnic, religious, skin-tone, clothing-test profile would work in the first place. Such myopia ignores the fact that Timothy McVeigh and Ted “Unabomber” Kaczynski were home-grown terrorists who wouldn’t fit any of Krauthammer’s “narrow, concrete, uniquely definable and universally known” criteria for sorting out air passenger for likely terrorist and eligible for Uncle Sam to intimately inspect.

Don’t people like Tyner and Krauthammer expect federal transportation officials to keep them (and all the other air passengers) safe as well? Who gets to pass more comfortably through the check-in process than others?

After federal officials arrested a man with explosives concealed in his underwear last Christmas, TSA stepped up its procedures to detect whether air travelers are hiding bombs in unmentionable places. The enhanced searches have increased as the holidays approach and the airports get busier than usual. Then there’s the boosted security that followed international security agents’ discovery last month of an explosive device hidden in computer printer materials on an air cargo plane headed for Chicago.

In those known cases, the government did its job to keep the nation safe. Imagine the hue and cry of government inaction or conspiracy that would follow if any one of these had been a successful terrorist attack.

Confronted by the prospect of a stranger with a TSA badge demanding to touch me in places where no man but my doctor has gone before, the bold-type signs about not making terrorist jokes comes across as ancient and quaint. I guess that’s why they’re invisible to me.

Recalling those signs, however, makes me nostalgic for the time when a joke provoked the severest penalty on the flying public. “Who do they think they are?” I recall one exasperated libertarian air traveler muttered several pre-9/11 years ago. Like me, this fellow was seeing the sign for the first time. “This is America. We have freedom of speech. I can say or joke about anything I want.”

No longer. At least not in the airport line. The loss of that freedom now extends the reach of government to touch us in erstwhile unimaginable ways and places. In these days of suicide bombers and hidden explosives in potentially any place or person on a plane, the loss of former freedoms hides inside the price of the ticket. And if federal officials ever expect the public to go along, then everyone need to understand the costs of soaring freedoms must be borne fairly by all who choose to fly.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Sam Fulwood III

Senior Fellow

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President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 12, 2016. (AP/Evan Vucci)