There have been many sacrifices that we deal with in our everyday lives made in the name of American safety and security since the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001.
Just before I flew to New York City last week to be home with my family for my birthday and Thanksgiving, my mother sent me an e-mail telling me to get to the airport as early as possible because of the Transportation Security Administration (more lovingly known as the TSA) crackdown for the holidays that was sure to slow everything to a crawl in airports. Not only would I be subject to head-to-toe groping from someone who probably dwarfed my six-foot-three frame — a joyous early birthday present — but I’d also be put through a full-body scanner so TSA could thoroughly view the precise contours of my beer-belly and my private parts. And if they liked what they saw, they could store it.
Even though I’ve never had an affinity for getting that close to women twice my size, I didn’t really mind the extensive pat-down or the virtual strip search because I value everyone’s safety more than my personal privacy. But I can see how many would have a problem with these practices, especially if they aren’t all sorely needed to thwart terrorists.
I read an article about the scanner machines by Jeffrey Rosen in The New Republic a year ago that quoted multiple security experts calling the scanners and other such things “security theater” and claimed the scanners are completely ineffective at spotting liquids and other low-density items. The article continued to cite research showing the scanners really don’t do much that a metal detector wouldn’t do aside from spotting wax and giving graphic images of the human body.
It’s also worth nothing from Rosen’s article that the Bush administration could have chosen machines that would blob certain parts of the body such as the genitals, but they elected to have machines that displayed the naked body instead. And strangely, when both houses of Congress voted on whether or not to keep TSA from storing the images, the Senate was against such restrictions. I’ll try to refrain from making any jokes about Sen. David Vitter (R–La.) — not that he’s alone. Do that on your own.
This leads me to the fear shared by Rosen that if the images can be stored, then they can leak. Sure, they can be confidential, they can have any label on them and the assurance from the government and the TSA that no leaking will occur, but those words only go so far. Given the sensitivity of what we’re reading this week through the latest WikiLeaks scandal that exposed some of the darkest secrets of the State Department, can anyone really trust that nothing will ever turn up after Scarlett Johansson gets scanned?
As Rosen points out, President Barack Obama’s initial nominee for head of the TSA was forced to step down after it was discovered that he “conducted two searches of the confidential criminal records of his estranged wife’s boyfriend, downloaded the records, and passed them on to law enforcement, possibly in violation of the Privacy Act.” This is someone the administration trusted — and even though the candidate withdrew his name from consideration, it raises fears even further about the unnecessary privacy issues we face.
But while I don’t really mind sacrificing some privacy for collective safety, I am partly worried about the potentially harmful effects of the body scanners. As a frequent flier and traveler, the dosage of radiation I receive is multiplied, and a recent CNN article quoted the director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia as saying, “it’s very likely that some number of those will develop cancer from the radiation from these scanners.”
The old idea of waiting in long lines and being groped by TSA as a reward for my patience (as well as some added security) sounds far more appealing to me than the combined risks of WikiLeaks publishing a compromising picture and getting cancer. Let’s go back to the old system or at least come up with a system that experts can agree actually works and doesn’t pose a health risk to innocent people.
Roger Sauerhaft is an LSA senior.