Friday, December 24, 2010

Airports and Liberties

published this piece in a recent issue of the Colgate Maroon-News, the main newspaper at my local university. Written shortly after Thanksgiving of 2010 for the "Being Right" column of the newspaper, my article discusses new TSA measures in airports.

Along with the usual subjects of football, family, and turkey, the main topic of discussion this Thanksgiving was the new security measures at airports. In the past few months, the Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, has ramped up security requirements at airports. Specifically, the TSA has greatly increased the number of full-body scanners at airport security checkpoints. Six months ago, there were only 80 scanning machines at 27 U.S. airports. Today, there are 385 scanners covering 68 airports. These scanners, which leave little to the imagination for TSA examiners in terms of anatomy, have brought about considerable concerns regarding the invasion of privacy and the excessive exposure to radiation. The TSA has paired the new scanning machines with more thorough “pat-down” procedures for travelers who refuse the scanners. TSA officials are now allowed to search private areas such as the breasts and groin which were previously off-limits. The TSA has a responsibility to keep airports as safe as possible. However, these new security measures cross the line between security and the invasion of privacy. Full body scanners and abusive pat-downs are an excessive and frankly typical abuse of power by federal government officials.

     Clearly, airport security needs to be strong and effective enough to prevent terrorist attacks. New airport measures came in response to recent threats to national security, particularly the Christmas Day bomber of last year who hid explosive devices in his underwear. The new security policies were vindicated in part by the discovery of a plot in Portland, Oregon to bomb a community Christmas-Tree lighting. The plan, undertaken by Somali-born Muslim Mohamed Osman Mohamud, was set to take place the day after Thanksgiving, before undercover FBI agents thwarted it through a sting operation. While this attack was not planned for an airplane flight, it did show that terrorist threats to the United States are still very present. It has been more than nine years since 9/11, and Americans gradually forget both how terrible that day was and how much hatred was behind those attacks. That hatred has not gone away in a decade. It remains, and the American people need to be conscious of the consequences it can have for the nation. We must not be complacent in our security measures, and we should remain ever vigilant of threats to the United States.

     Yet despite the continuous threat of terrorist violence, the new security measures in airports cross the line of personal freedom. The full-body scanners are very revealing, and they produce images that nobody should be allowed to look at outside of the doctor’s office or the bedroom. The new routines for “pat-down” scans are similarly inappropriate.  The measures that TSA officials now take at security checkpoints amount to legalized abuse. Like most individuals who find themselves in a position with a certain amount of unchecked power, TSA agents are engaging in invasive measures simply because they have the power to do so. The new breaches in civil liberties are not done with the primary aim of security. They are done with the personal aim of flexing individual power. There is no proof that these new measures are effective at stopping terrorist attacks, and they breach personal privacy. The bad that comes with the excessive abuse of power by TSA agents outweighs the good that the measures might be doing to keep airline flights secure.

     Airport security is a necessary inconvenience in the post-9/11 world. However, the new measures by the TSA are both highly invasive and of questionable effectiveness. The TSA needs to implement better training and more consistent restrictions for its officials working in airports today. Travelers being both secure and satisfied can only be good for the safety and security of this nation. Security comes with a price, that’s for sure. However, when the price is unreasonable government invasion into personal property and space, it is not a price worth paying.

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