Reason and balance needed at airport security gate
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Air travelers want it both ways: a quick, no-fuss security check before boarding a jet plus a guarantee that no bomb or bad guy slipped aboard. Now comes a tougher test: As terrorist tactics grow, will passengers accept a closer look and even a very personal pat-down?
After months of warnings to the public, the Transportation Security Administration is putting up new scanners backed up, if events warrant, by body searches. The X-ray-style screenings are watched by inspectors for hidden objects that older-technology detectors might not catch. The next step might be a body exam – conducted by an agent of the same sex as the traveler – and involves breast and groin hand searches. If a passenger refuses to go through the wall-size scanner or an object is spotted, then things get very detailed in a closed room nearby.
No question it’s a huge change from the familiar kick-off-your-shoes-and-empty-your-pockets procedure. The new system is drawing howls of protest, especially in the wake of a wildfire video taken by a San Diego traveler who balked at the scanner and refused to be searched. “If you touch my junk, I’ll have you arrested,” he said. (The T-shirt is already being printed.)
All of the commotion is understandable. No one wants to be grabbed and poked when they’ve done nothing to deserve such treatment. It’s unfair, invasive and overboard. And it comes just before the grin-and-bear it Thanksgiving travel season. TSA workers will make mistakes and act rudely.
But as terrorist threats advance, so must prevention. Air travelers expect fault-free performance from Washington. A bombing, hijacking or midair incident could paralyze the country on a dozen levels from airport shutdowns to an economic tailspin. In a way, the country has already made the decision for federal authorities by expecting full protection.
Now the real-world steps are there to see. The new scanners look tall and ominous. Passengers fear they give off radiation, though federal officials say the amount is too small to worry about. There’s a flood of Internet stories about heavy-handed enforcement and abuse. Add in the anti-Washington mood of the moment.
But there should be room for reason and balance. A CBS poll out this week shows 4 out of 5 people favor the stepped-up scans. The message about risk and danger is getting through to passengers. The shoe bomber of 2001 has become the underwear bomber of Christmas 2009. Catching such terrorists takes new steps, and Washington is doing what the public wants.
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