Excessive Intrusion, Less Security

by , March 19, 2010

Chicago’s O’Hare Airport – the nation’s second largest airport and one of the busiest, if not the busiest – is one of several U.S. airports (including Boston’s Logan Airport) that is putting the newest body scanner technology into use. One hundred and fifty new scanners are scheduled to be deployed along with the 40 already being used at 19 airports. In large part, the body scanners are in response to the aborted Christmas underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who smuggled explosives onto Delta Flight 253 from Nigeria via Amsterdam to Detroit. Thankfully, Abdulmutallab didn’t injure anyone except himself – managing to light his pants on fire. If this is the extent of the terrorist threat to America, we should be so lucky.

Not unexpectedly, the hue and cry went up for more and improved security. And body scanners were touted as being able to have prevented Abdulmutallab’s attempted attack by virtue of seeing through his clothing to detect what he was carrying in his underwear.

According to the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause…." Admittedly, we gave up our Fourth Amendment rights for airline travel a long time ago by submitting ourselves to metal detectors and carry-on bags to X-ray searches – all done without any probable cause (and something we wouldn’t tolerate as part of our everyday lives). But body scanners take unreasonable searches to a completely different level. The American Civil Liberties Union calls body scans "virtual strip searches." And even though Pope Benedict XVI didn’t directly mention body scanners when he told an audience of airport workers at the Vatican, "Every action, it is above all essential to protect and value the human person in their integrity," it is believed that it is what he meant.

Unfortunately, too many people never heard Benjamin Franklin’s saying "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety," such as Logan airport passenger Michelle Carrier, who believes, "Freedom’s important, but this is one of the prices you pay for safety." (As an aside, I’m not saying this applies to Michelle Carrier, but I think it’s interesting that the slogan "freedom isn’t free" is popular among those who believe we wouldn’t be a free country without the use of military force in other countries – even as many of those same people don’t seem too concerned about protecting our actual freedoms at home. Go figure. And another aside: we are assured by the Transportation Safety Agency that none of the images taken by body scanners will be printed or scanned. That’s what the British government said about body scanners at London’s Heathrow Airport. Yet in February 2010 – yes, just last month – body scan, i.e., naked, images of Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan were printed out and circulated by airport staff. I wonder if people like Michelle Carrier feel that that’s a price they’re willing to pay for safety.)

But safety from what? According to John Mueller, who holds the Woody Hayes Chair of National Security Studies at Ohio State University, "Even with the September 11 attacks included in the count, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s (which is when the State Department began counting) is about the same as the number of Americans killed over the same period by lightning." (According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the odds of being struck – not killed – by lightning are somewhere between 1-in-500,000 and 1-in-750,000 in a given year and the actual number of deaths is about 60-70. And here is a link to a State Department chronology of significant terrorist incidents 1961-2003.)

The truth is that unless you live in Israel, Iraq, or Afghanistan, a terrorist attack is a rare event. More importantly, terrorism is not an existential threat. Yet policymakers (of all political stripes) and the media (liberally biased or otherwise) lead us to believe that a terrorist attack – any terrorist attack – would be an end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it event. But even 9/11 – as devastating and tragic as it was – was not the end of the world. Reality check: Terrorists may have some ability to do us great harm, but they do not have the ability to destroy us – that ability is currently reserved to Russia, which still has thousands of nuclear warheads targeting the United States.

And more intrusive security in the form of body scans doesn’t really make us more secure since it doesn’t deal with the root causes of why we would be a target of terrorism. Indeed, we continue to ignore one of the biggest reasons: an interventionist U.S. foreign policy practiced by Democrats and Republicans alike (the difference being one of style, not substance) that gives Muslims good reasons to hate America. For all the talk about Muslim terrorists being a threat, the reality is that U.S. foreign policy has killed a large number of Muslims, a number far greater than that of Americans killed by Muslims. According to Harvard professor Stephen Walt, U.S. policy decisions and actions have resulted in (conservatively) 288,000 Muslim deaths (many of them civilians) compared to about 10,000 Americans killed by Muslims (the bulk of which are attributed to the 9/11 attacks and Operation Iraqi Freedom). However justified some of the U.S.-inflicted casualties are, the math speaks for itself. If we’re not prepared to address the problems of policy (and it doesn’t seem that the Obama administration is any more willing than the Bush administration was), then more security won’t make us any more secure.

Read more by Charles V. Peña