It’s a touchy situation.
Airline passengers appalled at the thought of their most private parts being revealed to security agents by the latest high-tech scanners face an uncomfortable alternative: a “pat-down” groin check that would make even a lap dancer blush, or a swift kick out of the airport. It’s a choice between unattractive options bitter enough to make one wonder whether election season did, in fact, end a few weeks ago.
There’s no doubt that something has to be done to combat skyborne terrorism. Al-Qaida turned our own jetliners against us on Sept. 11, 2001. Last Christmas, an operative was able to board a Chicago-bound plane after stuffing explosives into his undergarments; the bomb misfired and only hurt Nigerian terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Arizona’s former governor, faced harsh criticism and calls to resign her post for claiming after the incident that the “system worked.”
And late last month, another close call: Two explosive-rigged packages were discovered to have been transported on passenger and cargo planes headed for U.S. destinations. The terrorist group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has claimed responsibility for the foiled plot.
All of this shows that there is real danger in the air. The federal Transportation Security Administration is choosing to err on the side of caution and the public good. Director John Pistole, who was a senior FBI agent at the time the “Underwear Bomber” was caught, told Congress this week that the new aggressive pat-downs would have resulted in Abdulmutallab’s seizure before he could have boarded that plane.
But the TSA’s tough new methods became a global controversy and fodder for the late-night comedy shows this past week when a blogger’s recent encounter with TSA screeners in San Diego went viral. Resisting a full-body scan and faced with a pat-down, John Tyner told a screener: “If you touch my junk, I’m gonna have you arrested.” The incident has resulted in a nationwide outcry against the invasive checks and even a grassroots campaign urging people to refuse the searches on Nov. 24, the heavy travel day before Thanksgiving.
Napolitano says feds are listening. Senators who grilled Pistole definitely are listening. “I’m frankly bothered by the level of these pat-downs,” Sen. George LeMieux, R-Fla., told him in an Associated Press report from hearings on Capitol Hill. “I wouldn’t want my wife to be touched in the way that these folks are being touched. I wouldn’t want to be touched that way.”
“The outcry is huge,” Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said. “I know that you’re aware of it. But we’ve got to see some action.”
Pistole is adamantly defiant: Intelligence is leading the way and suggests that the current security procedures are appropriate to the threat at hand. He calls the boycott effort irresponsible and Napolitano calls it regrettable. A CBS News poll released Monday shows overwhelming support for the devices among Americans: When asked if U.S. airports should use full-body X-ray machines at security checkpoints, 81% said yes and 15% said no, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
But the people pushing for change are not doing anything illegal or wrong — they’re exercising their right to protest peacefully, and exercising the options they have as travelers. It may not be convenient for the people in line behind them, but they have the same choices, too. No matter the time of year, these things should be protected. A disturbing response to the uproar has emerged: Flying is a privilege, not a right, so shut up and sit down. But that’s not how change happens in a free society.
In this season of thanks, let’s be grateful that there is some kind of system in place to guarantee airline passengers’ safety — but let’s also work together to find constructive ways to make the airways easier and safer for all honest travelers.