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Con: X-rays and pat-downs are dangerous to passengers and democracy alike

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Andrew P. Morriss
January 29, 2011
EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer is addressing the question, Do most Americans believe tougher airport screenings are necessary?

The Transportation Security Administration provoked a nationwide furor late last year when it instituted a new security protocol of whole body X-rays and intrusive pat-downs of many airline passengers.


Faced with widespread outrage over what many see as civil liberty violations, TSA Administrator John Pistole refused to back down.


While much of the public’s outright outrage has abated, Pistole’s position remains wrong; these measures are serious infringements on personal liberty. They reduce rather than increase safety and are part of TSA’s efforts to create a theatrical performance at our airports that makes people feel safer rather than taking steps to address real threats.


We know that neither the whole body X-rays nor the pat downs are important safety measures because Israel, which operates the most effective airport security program in the world, uses neither.


Moreover, since TSA uses them on only a small fraction of passengers, and because many of those do not fit any reasonable profile of a potential terrorist, even these measures are unlikely to spot a terrorist. For instance, TSA has conceded that the whole body X-rays would not have caught “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab.


Although TSA insists that even repeated whole body X-rays are not dangerous, the agency neglects even the most minimal safety precautions.


Having flown repeatedly since use started, I have not seen any TSA employee wearing a radiation badge, a routine safety precaution to measure exposure followed in every medical facility that operates x-ray equipment.


Moreover, TSA personnel, who are not medically trained, are able to vary the intensity of the radiation emitted by the machine, meaning the cumulative exposure of frequent fliers on a day-by-day basis may vary significantly from airport to airport. Further, TSA’s machines concentrate radiation at skin level, unlike hospital equipment. No one knows what the effects on skin cancer will be.


These issues were all known before the machines went into use: scientists working in X-ray imaging and cancer from the University of California at San Francisco wrote to TSA in April 2010 to raise medical concerns. TSA has not acted in response.


The pat downs are also problematic. The video of a TSA officer having a small child remove his shirt and the account of how another broke a colostomy bag and drenched a passenger in urine demonstrates the humiliating impact of such searches.


What does it teach our children—who we’ve taught to never let a stranger touch them—to be groped in public by a government agent? What does it do to the psyche of sexual abuse victims to be groped by a stranger? What does it do to those with sensitive medical conditions to have them exposed to the public?


The Constitution protects Americans against unreasonable search and seizures, a requirement historically interpreted to prevent searches like these without reasonable suspicion. Taking what amount to nude photographs or conducting an aggressive and intrusive physical search based merely on a desire to travel by air is unprecedented.


We have the tools to conduct effective searches for potential terrorists. Equipment exists to detect explosives—the so-called “puffer” machine—that is both more effective and less intrusive than either pat-downs or X-rays.


Credit-card companies already conduct more effective identity checks on their customers—completed in a matter of seconds. Surely, they are not beyond the capability of either the airlines or TSA. Indeed, if credit-card identity verification technology then in widespread use had been used by airport security on Sept. 11, 2001, all 19 hijackers would have been flagged as security risks based on their IDs.


Benjamin Franklin warned us: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Franklin would be appalled by TSA’s efforts to sacrifice our liberty and we should be as well.


Andrew Morriss holds the D. Paul Jones Jr. & Charlene A. Jones Chair in Law & Professor of Business at the University of Alabama. Readers may write him at UA Law, 101 Paul W. Bryant Drive E., Tuscaloosa, AL 35487.

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