By Marc Seltzer; originally published at care2.com on December 6, 2010. (The original posting received more than 100 comments, often strongly disapproving, which can be seen at the care2.com link.)
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Protests against airline security procedures did not materialize last week despite a media campaign in which a variety of hopeful instigators clamored that the public would not tolerate the invasion of privacy. While the new procedures — x-ray technology that sees through clothes and pat downs that include private parts — are bound to make people uncomfortable, the vast majority of passengers accept that the threat of attack is serious and the security measures reasonable.
The sniping at the Obama administration and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and claims that TSA procedures are unconstitutional on the one hand and misguided on the other don’t hold up to scrutiny. First of all, flying is optional. We choose to do it by paying for a ticket and accepting the rules that go with the privilege of flying. The government, rather than the private airline companies, conduct security operations, but no one is forcing passengers to get in line. Second, flying is not something you do in the confines of your home, where you would expect the most 4th amendment protection from government search and seizure. The question of whether it’s reasonable to conduct these admittedly invasive searches in an airport security line depends on the level of protection needed and the availability of other options.
While the U.S. has been lucky that the shoe bomber, underwear bomber and other attempts have failed to bring down a plane, there is a clear threat to aviation security. The procedures are the best that experts can come up with at this moment. No doubt less invasive, and more effective, machines are on the drawing board.
Another argument is that the scanners and pat downs can’t stop every conceivable threat. True, but the new procedures increase the chances of a successful inspection for dangerous materials. They take more time, they see more, and they make it more difficult to plan and carry out an attack. That is enough to justify their use, even if something slips through.
The people in aviation security, from front line screeners to administration decision makers, deserve credit for doing a difficult job where a single mistake can cost many lives and the enemy actively tries to exploit errors and weaknesses.
Marc Seltzer is also a contributor to SupremePodcast.com, a weekly U.S. Supreme Court case review podcast.