Freethought San Marcos: A column
by LAMAR W. HANKINS
Voices from the right, the left, the middle, and everywhere else on the political spectrum have been explaining, sometimes passionately, their opposition to the new search procedures for passengers on commercial aircraft, which started just before Thanksgiving by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The two new systems put in place include a machine that takes a full body image (with attendant exposure to radiation for each passenger) that some have called porno pictures, and a hands-on full-body search that has been called groping.
A new naming game has ensued. TSA is being widely disrespected by calling it Touching Skirts and Ass, Terrifying Sane Americans, Touch Someone’s Ass, Taking Self-respect Away, The Stupid Agency, Three Stooges Association, Taxpayer Stimulation Agency, Touching Stuff Aggressively, Trampling Several Amendments, Teaching Submission to Americans, Touching Sensitive Areas, Thousands Standing Around, Testicle Searchers of America, Touch Stroke Assault, Terrorist Support Agency, Teabag Squeezers of America, To Stroke Asses, Testicles Scanned Aggressively, Trampling Servile Americans, Terribly Sensitive Antics, Thousands Sexually Assaulted, Touching Scrotums Always, Targeted Sexual Assault, Taking Security Away, This Sucks Always, Trains-Suggested Alternative, Tight Space Administration, Tawdry Strip Act, Totally Senseless Aggression, Typical State Action, and so on. You get the idea. Americans are not happy with the new search procedures.
The porno pictures and the groping raise different concerns for different people. Of course, some people consider both an invasion of their privacy on general principles, including constitutional principles. After all, the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution provides that, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
By our generally indifferent reaction to the USA PATRIOT Act, passed right after 9/11, it is apparent that most of us do not live up to the ideals of liberty that our founders valued. We readily give up liberty for the easy promise of security, even if it means we endure massive invasions of our privacy. The full-body scanners are rather invasive. They reveal details of one’s genitalia, sanitary napkins and tampons, colostomy bags, urinary incontinence bags and absorbent underwear, mastectomy prosthetics, hernia supports, and other matters related to medical procedures (which may be of particular concern to those undergoing transgender procedures).
While the images are supposed to be destroyed, they can be kept on computers, as 35,000 have been by U. S. Marshals in a Florida federal courthouse where such scanners are used. Any scans kept on a computer can easily make their way onto websites for anyone to view, as proved by the Gizmodo tech-blog, which posted 100 such images on November 16, 2010–<http://gizmodo.com/5690749/these-are-the-first-100-leaked-body-scans>. In fact, according to CNN, TSA’s technical specifications and vendor contracts require vendors to provide equipment that can store and send images of screened passengers when in testing mode. So it can (and will) be done.
But such privacy concerns pale in comparison to the potential harm of the radiation produced by the machines. Scientists at Johns Hopkins University school of medicine and at the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF) have expressed concerns. Dr. Michael Love, who runs an x-ray lab at Johns Hopkins, said that “…statistically someone is going to get skin cancer from these x-rays.” A group of UCSF scientists warned that there are “potential serious health risks” associated with the use of the scanners.
The alternative–intensive and invasive body searches–also impacts those living with the results of body anomalies, health problems, surgery, and rape. Rape victims may suffer emotional trauma from the physical invasions of their bodies by TSA searchers. Reports are already being heard of colostomy and urinary bags being dislodged during the groping searches. A woman wearing a prosthetic breast could be subjected to embarrassment by the hard probing in and around women’s bras during the searches. And all of this is done without probable cause to believe that the person searched has done anything wrong or intends to do anything wrong.
Those people who practice modesty in dress out of personal, health, surgical, or religious considerations will be particularly disadvantaged by both the full-body scanners and the invasive body searches. Those with artificial limbs may be required to remove them for inspection, resulting in inconvenience as well as a further invasion of their privacy.
Americans have a right to be free from such searches and invasions of our privacy when there is no probable cause to believe there has been wrong-doing, but the theatrical value of the new procedures gives many the impression that they are being protected from people who would smuggle explosives in their underwear, as a man did nearly a year ago on a flight from Amsterdam. The security failure in that case occurred not on American soil, but elsewhere in the world after warnings to US intelligence organizations about the would-be perpetrator and after he bought a one-way ticket with cash, a now universal red flag to security personnel. How beginning such “security” measures nine months or more after that incident will protect Americans has not been explained. If this change in airport security is so necessary, why did TSA wait so long to implement the procedures? Perhaps it had something to do with lobbying by the former director of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, on behalf of a company that sells the full-body scanners.
Chertoff’s lobbying company, the Chertoff Group, represents Rapiscan Systems, one of two companies that make full-body scanners that satisfy government specifications. TSA purchased $25 million of the scanners from Rapiscan this past summer using funds appropriated for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, in spite of a vote by the House of Representatives disapproving such an expenditure. The non-profit airline consumer organization FLYERSRIGHTS criticized Chertoff’s influence over the purchase of the scanners: “Mr. Chertoff should not be allowed to abuse the trust the public has placed in him as a former public servant to privately gain from the sale of full-body scanners under the pretense that the scanners would have detected this particular type of explosive,’’ said Kate Hanni, founder of the consumer organization, referring to the underwear-concealed explosive material.
The full-body scans are invasions of privacy, and the aggressive body searches qualify as sexual assault under state laws, but most American flyers are tolerating them according to news reports. What is unknown is how many prospective flyers will not fly rather than be subjected to violations of their constitutional rights. A new Zogby poll reported on November 23 finds that 43% of the American public will seek alternatives to flying due to the TSA’s aggressive pat-downs and full-body imaging, and 59% oppose the new procedures. And we know that many of our politicians are able to avoid the procedures. John Boehner, the next Speaker of the House, who vowed to fly commercial jets (unlike the current Speaker, Nancy Pelosi) gets to by-pass screening because he has bodyguards approved by TSA. The same is true for cabinet secretaries, top congressional leaders and an elite group of senior U.S. officials who have government-approved federal security details. I wonder if there is a way to get my wife government-approved to provide security for me when I fly.
But such violations of Americans’ rights are not necessary to provide adequate security when we fly. Israel, a country with a more significant terrorism problem than the US, has been successful protecting Israelis without such intrusive procedures, as has England, another country subject to active terrorism. Americans need to demand of our politicians that other, better, and constitutional ways to protect us be found. A report on these new procedures by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General said only that recommendations for improvement were made and that “The number of tests conducted, the names of the airports tested, and the quantitative and qualitative results of our testing are classified.” The American people are entitled to know if these intrusive security measures are effective. And while we are waiting to learn about the effectiveness of the searches, we need to demand that TSA find ways to search all air cargo transported on commercial jets, something TSA has neglected while it invades our privacy and gropes our bodies in a show of doing its job.
© Lamar W. Hankins, Freethought San Marcos