November 29, 2010

Far From a Happy Ending

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I always figured that I’d have to go through quite a few career failures before I found myself posing for naked photos. But now, thanks to the TSA, I can have my cake and eat it too.

Undoubtedly, many of you encountered the TSA’s latest revamp of their screening policies during your Thanksgiving break travels. Where before one needed only to step through a metal detector, travelers are now subject to a “full-body scanner,” a machine that uses backscatter x-rays to compile, as the name suggests, full-body images of those passing through it. The use of such machines has come under considerable scrutiny, not only because the long-term health risks of repeated exposure are unknown, but also because the resulting images have a particularly unique quality. Unlike x-rays, which reveal detail beneath the skin, backscatter x-rays only reveal detail underneath clothes. In short, it can see you naked.

For those uncomfortable with the new full-body scanners, the TSA offers an opt-out procedure: the “pat-down.” Although it has an innocuous enough name, the “pat-down” too has been modified. Reading a description of the process, the TSA more “rubs” and “presses” than “pats.” Ariel Kaminer, a New York Times editor who willfully submitted to one of these “pat-downs,” wrote that the TSA agent’s hands “did as she warned me they would. They poked around the back of my collar, they extended along my shoulders, they ran up and down my arms, they smoothed down my back, they slid inside the back waistband of my pants and they glided down my butt. The officer bent down and I felt her hands skate up the back of my left thigh — all the way up — and then do the same on my right. Then she rose, came around in front of me, and began again.”

How sensuous. Now, it seems, we can all live out Larry Craig’s fantasy of being anonymously groped at an airport.

Dissidents of the new policy have not suffered quietly. One man gained Internet notoriety for posting a video he had discreetly taken on his cell-phone in which he threatened to have a TSA agent arrested if the agent “touched [his] junk.” A “National Opt-Out Day,” in which travelers would refuse the scanners en masse, was planned for the day before Thanksgiving with the goal of disrupting the flow of people through security on one of the busiest traveling days of the year. Neither form of protest, despite their sensationalism, has been able to coax even talk about concessions from the TSA.

Truth in advertising: I haven’t yet had to go through one of the scanners, or submit to a pat-down — whichever I choose will have to wait until my winter break travels. It is perhaps because I haven’t had the opportunity to experience the vulnerability or humiliation that some claim to feel that I’m still, to be perfectly honest, a bit ambivalent about the new policies.

On the one hand, I’m very sympathetic to people’s displeasure with the new protocol. Full-body scans and vigorous pat-downs certainly amount to a level of government intrusion into the lives of innocent citizens the likes of which we haven’t yet witnessed. For some, being viewed or handled in such a way may be emotionally or psychologically taxing to an extent the TSA is not trained to deal with; these travelers may have strong religious beliefs, histories of past abuse or various types of emotional trauma that give them a particularly strong aversion to the searches. Furthermore, the risk of abuse on behalf of the TSA — such as profiling certain people for more inspections, or sexually abusing people being screened — is very high. In sum, the new policies give the government an alarming amount of power over our bodies.

On the other hand, it’s hard to deny that such measures make us safer. Metal detectors had the obvious limitation of only being able to detect dangerous objects if they were made out of metal. The new full-body scanners are able to detect foreign objects strapped to the body regardless of their composition, allowing the TSA to identify threats with much greater consistency and precision. Some argue that if the TSA builds a better mouse-trap, Al Qaeda builds a better mouse, and while I won’t disagree with the essence of such a statement, I hardly think that such fatalism justifies inaction.

There has always been, and always will be, a tension between liberty and security. And while it may seem anti-climactic to end a semester of opinion columns with a column without an opinion, if I knew what the proper equilibrium between those two ideals were, I would certainly be doing more than writing about it in a college newspaper. It is unfortunate, however, that the debate over the new procedures has become most pronounced only in hindsight; at this juncture, the likelihood of reversing any new policies is minimal at best. And despite the uproar, most travelers have taken the new regulations in stride.

So perhaps the prudent question to end on is this: How much security is too much, and who will decide?

David Murdter is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at dmurdter@cornellsun.com. Murphy’s Lawyer appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: David Murdter