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A Times Editorial

Airport searches go too far

THE NEW, INTRUSIVE body searches at the nation's airports have triggered protests around the country. The traveling public, in this age of terrorism, knows that inspections are necessary before boarding an airplane. But there is a difference between a thorough, respectful search and a license to touch sex organs or use technology to see every graphic inch of someone's body. Don't blame travelers for this backlash. The Transportation Security Administration should have known it was going to get this very human reaction and should have looked for more palatable alternatives.

On Sunday's Face the Nation on CBS, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke for many Americans when she said she would avoid the TSA's "enhanced" patdown if she could. Some people who have gone through this new approach to physically searching a passenger's body are equating it to a sexual assault. The intrusive patdowns are given to passengers who decline to go through full body scanning machines — dubbed virtual strip searches — deployed at airports across the country, including at Tampa International.

The body scanners are only a bit more acceptable. Subjects are directed to stand with the hands above their heads, so that a TSA worker in a remote location — possibly a man, possibly a woman — can see an image of the person's naked body. Though the face is obscured and the body does not appear real, it is an accurate image of what a person looks like under his or her clothes. One TSA screener at Miami International Airport allegedly beat up a co-worker for joking about the small size of the man's penis after he went through a body imaging machine during training.

The TSA should have better balanced passenger privacy with security when it developed the current procedure. Apparently, four years ago the Department of Homeland Security was offered a cheap and easy reprogramming system for the body scanning machines that would have distorted the body images into grotesque forms but still shown foreign objects — such as explosives hidden inside underwear like in the case of a Nigerian man who became known as the "Christmas Day bomber." But according to the program's developer, Willard "Bill" Wattenburg, a researcher associated with one of the federal government's most prestigious research institutes, there was no interest at the time. Instead, the TSA has used its blunt powers to force Americans who must travel by air to accept a bureaucratic Peeping Tom.

Most passengers understand that some inconvenience and intrusion is necessary to make flying safer, but the pushback from passengers against the latest incarnation of airport security is understandable. Clinton doesn't have to go through these procedures when she flies. Neither does incoming House Speaker John Boehner, who was ushered past security at Ronald Reagan National Airport on Friday. But most Americans do, and they have a right to expect that more respect and dignity be returned to the process.

Airport searches go too far 11/22/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 22, 2010 6:53pm]
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