The ReThink Blog

Starting from scratch in politics and science


Are Airport Security Checkpoints Necessary?

Janet Napolitano
Janet Napolitano: keeping you safe by putting TSA workers in your pants

For those of you who haven't been paying attention in the last few days, here's a quick summary of one of the biggest stories: Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and the TSA, citing the looming threat of terrorism, have increased security measures at airports by mandating that randomly selected passengers either undergo a full body scan--in which a picture of their naked body is seen by some stranger in another room--or they have to endure a very intimate pat-down, the likes of which police officers need probable cause that you've committed a crime to give you. People are outraged, for some strange reason, and upset that there doesn't seem to be any recourse. People are talking about how the terrorists have won and how we have sacrificed our freedoms and dignity in the name of "security theater."

Others talk about how these measures are absolutely necessary, even though a determined terrorist could easily smuggle a bomb in his "body cavities" (read: "ass"). Napolitano, in a measured and thoughtful response to the growing backlash, told passengers that "if they want to travel by some other means," they could, apparently believing that government bureaucracy and free choice go hand in hand. Shockingly, privately-owned airports are actually free to opt out of the TSA's gestapo checkpoints, but to do so would seem to be corporate suicide.

In response to this apparent fact, I'd like to propose a thought experiment: imagine that the owners of one major airport somewhere in the country decided not only to opt out of the TSA's security measures, but also to dismantle all of their security checkpoints. Before you leap to the ad metum assumption that all airplanes leaving that airport (let's call it "HYP") would be hijacked by jihadists and blow up in mid-air, stop and seriously consider the reality of what would happen.

Not only would law-abiding passengers be allowed to bring dangerous and potentially hazardous materials like slurpees and shampoos onto an airplane, but they could even bring knives or--God forbid--handguns. Now, given that there isn't a high success rate of committing a crime in an isolated locale like an airplane in flight, it stands to reason that nobody aside from suicidal terrorists would bring a weapon to an airplane with the intent to use it. However, you can be damn sure in modern America, especially if HYP is in Texas, that some passengers would have weapons and wouldn't hesitate to use them if threatened by a potential hijacker. On top of that, airplanes still have their own internal security systems, like heavy-duty cockpit doors that can be locked from the inside, Air Marshals, etc., not to mention that there is no law against arming the flight attendants with tasers.

Full body scan image
Don't worry; the TSA assures you that no images taken by the full body scanner will wind up through a negative filter and on an Internet blog or anything

I know the analogy isn't perfect, but imagine that it is as easy to board airplanes from HYP as it is to board a city bus. No full-body scans, no pat-downs, no random screenings or searches, no removal of shoes, jackets, and belts, no x-ray machine, and no metal detectors. Before you argue that bus hijackings aren't as big a deal as airplane ones, check out the news reports coming out of Israel for the last thirty years. It is probably impossible to cause mayhem on the scale of 9/11 with a city bus, but terrorists could still use them to cause significant losses of life. If we are so scared of terrorists that we should accept full-body scans and intrusive pat-downs at the airport, why don't we force bus passengers through metal detectors?

Now some people might be tempted to bring up the Fourth Amendment at this point, to talk about how the government is forbidden from performing searches without probable cause. Unfortunately, you can thank the almighty loophole for getting the government out of having to respect this individual right. By purchasing a plane ticket, you are acknowledging that you are aware of the security measures that will be used against you and, essentially, you have waived your rights under the Constitution. As our sincere Homeland Security Secretary has pointed out, you are free to use alternative modes of transportation. Also know that, if you get to the security checkpoint and decide it's too much and turn around to leave, you could be fined as much as $11,000.

So rather than falling into that rhetorical trap, let's return to our hypothetical airport, HYP. Imagine the immediate reaction to the press conference, after the HYP owners announce their intention to dismantle their security checkpoints. Some airlines immediately pull out of the airport, news reporters and pundits go apeshit, and if we're very lucky, the president gets on television and warns us about the dangers of being irresponsible. While the government works to fight back and legislators rush to pass laws mandating a minimum for security checkpoints at all airports, a few airlines--maybe even just small ones--opt to stay at HYP.

Many people who live within a hundred miles or so of HYP then come to the conclusion that they'd rather risk a trip flying out of HYP than go to another airport where dignity is a foreign concept. Assuming there are no incidents after a few weeks, the number of people making this choice begins to grow. HYP becomes profitable again as airlines that had opted out of HYP start coming back and operating costs are reduced. After a few months, assuming the government remains as slow as always, another airport follows HYP's example, followed by another and another and another. Eventually, society undergoes a paradigm shift and realizes the truth: security checkpoints at airports are pointless.

Airport security
Somebody's junk is getting touched today!

Of course, an incident is certain to occur eventually. The sooner it happens, the less likely this scenario is to play out the way I've outlined, unless of course that incident results in a terrorist being successfully thwarted by armed passengers. The reality is that, even though HYP's gambit wouldn't result in an increase in terrorist events, it wouldn't equate to a decrease either. Maybe allowing the passengers to be armed would reduce the terrorist "success" rate, but that's just speculation. There will still be terrorism, and there will still be people trying to use airplanes to spread bedlam.

That's when we have to calm down and consider the actual scope of the threat. I won't get into numbers, but the bottom line is that you are far more likely to die in a car accident on the way to the airport than you are to be in an airplane that is hijacked. You are more likely to have your plane run out of fuel or lose an engine to a bird than for it to be hijacked. You are more likely to be struck by lightning. Heck, you are almost as likely to die as a result of lightning while on an airplane. You could certainly argue that the low rate of hijackings is because of the existence of security checkpoints, but in the years before the United States installed metal detectors in all airports, there was only one hijacking that resulted in a fatality. It occured in a flight out of California in 1964, when a passenger shot the pilot and first officer. Metal detectors didn't become obligatory until the 70's. Before that, aside from the aforementioned California flight, there were no hijackings on American planes that resulted in fatalities, despite hijackings in other parts of the globe.

Of course, the world is a different place now than it was before 1970. Maybe I'm wrong and an airport like HYP would result in the end of all things. Maybe we should just drop our pants and accept full body cavity searches next. But are you absolutely sure? Are you? Can we know for a fact that all this ridiculous invasion of privacy is necessary and proper? Is it worth it? I'm not so sure. In fact, without quoting Ben Franklin, I'm pretty convinced that an airport like HYP could be even more secure and free than full-body scanners and pat-downs. In this country, I think we deserve to give it a shot.

-e. magill 11/17/2010

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