Dave Barry and the TSA

OK.  I know lots of people will probably post this link, but I couldn’t resist.  I had just come home from work and was in the bedroom getting changed.  I habitually turn on one of the local NPR stations and listen for a few moments.  Tonight, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  Dave Barry didn’t pass his x-ray screening (blurry groin) and had to get a pat down.  If you haven’t heard him tell the tale, you are missing funny story.

But the sad thing is that as funny as he makes his experience sound, I think we have gone overboard screening airline passengers.  Yes, I know I wouldn’t say that if I ever found myself on a plane with a person with a bomb, but is all the radiation and the groping worth it?  Are we willing to risk future cancers (especially the airline personnel) and/or humiliation to be safe.  There has to be a better way.

A demonstration of the first Advanced Imaging Technology unit at JFK International Airport

Even Nate Silver is looking at the issue.

My first experience with the full-body scanners, on a flight back to Kennedy Airport from San Diego last month, was also a negative one. I had assumed that, whatever their other faults, the full-body scanners would at least speed up the process of going through the security line; I supposed I imagined something like this scene from the movie Total Recall, in which passengers literally don’t even have to pause to go through security as their bodies are scanned while they walk toward the departure gate.

Instead, the lines were quite slow — possibly because the machines were coming up with a lot of false positives, myself included. As is my usual practice when passing through airport security, I emptied my pants pockets completely — there wasn’t so much as a stick of gum, a penny, or a taxi receipt in there. But the machine nevertheless insisted that that there was something in the back right-hand pocket of my jeans. When the official from the Transportation Security Administration asked me what I had in my pocket, and I told him that there was absolutely nothing, he then performed a pat-down. I was in a chipper enough mood that I wasn’t inclined to make a scene, but I did ask the T.S.A. official whether it was routine for the machines to see things that weren’t there, to which he declined to respond.

Still, it shifted my overall opinion of the technology from positive to negative. This may be something to keep in mind when reviewing polls on the topic.

Silver points out that while polls show overwhelming support fo the new technology, the number of people who fly and have experienced the new screening is relatively low.

The T.S.A. is fond of citing polls which suggest that about 75 or 80 percent of air travelers approve of the new machines. There are a couple of issues having to do with the timing of these surveys, however. Most of them were conducted in January, immediately after the failed attempt last Christmas day by a Nigerian man, who had concealed explosives in his underwear, to blow up a plane travelling from Amsterdam to Detroit — during which time concern about air travel security would naturally have been quite elevated.

What I think we need to know then, is how those who have actually traveled through an airport that uses the full-body scanners feel about them — particularly if they’re people who fly frequently and are therefore going to bear the burden of any inconvenience, embarrassment, invasion of privacy or health risk brought on by the new technology.

My guess is that a majority of such passengers will still approve of them: Americans are willing to tolerate a great number of things at the airport that they would never stand for in other parts of their lives. (Imagine, for instance, if you had to pass through a metal detector on the way into the shopping mall, or were diverted for 15 minutes through a security checkpoint every time that you wanted to drive on the Interstate.)

I haven’t flown since 9/11.  I’ve never been particularly fond of flying anyway and now it seems there will be a choice between being x-rayed and, as Dave Barry pointed out, having the pictures beamed who knows where or being groped.  I think I’ll drive or stay home for a while.

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