July 1 2011

Security and Dignity

Diana Lopez

In a post Wednesday (Saving Grandmother Reppert), Charlotte Hays writes about the incident where Lena Reppert, a 95 year old wheelchair-bound Leukemia patient, was forced to remove her adult diapers to undergo a standard TSA pat-down.  

Charlotte expresses sympathy for Ms. Reppert. In Hays’s view, "this is simply the way that airport security works," though she believes this is not how airport security should work. The problem is that the pat down was aimless. The solution? Profiling.

Indiscriminate searches by the TSA at airport security clearly don't work. She quotes a post by Jonah Goldberg on Israeli "intelligent profiling," where airport security is trained to use reason and intuition to question specific persons of interest--not to randomly scan innocuous citizens. 

To focus on screening people who are clearly not security threats, like old women and children, is a waste of time. “Intelligent profiling,” presumably more sophisticated than racial or religious profiling, would focus only on the shifty-eyed and nervous. 

Jonah Goldberg, quoted by Ms. Hays, feels that current policy assumes airport security are mindless automatons, and so they act as such; instead, we should understand that humans are capable of more nuanced decision-making abilities. The implication is that we should be more like Israelis, who don't have invasive body image scanners nor random passenger pat-downs at their airports. 

But these considerations do not reveal fundamental problems in “intelligent profiling.” 

To begin with, “intelligent profiling” in practice is often a euphemism for religious and racial profiling, despite its comforting name. Many incidents lend proof to the fact that Israeli airport security focus on Arabs and Muslims as security threats. And when a passenger is designated as a threat, the frisking can be more invasive than what we're used to in the United States. Does this really make us safer? 

Additionally, there is no redeeming value in noting that this is how airport security works—that the sick elderly are just being treated by the book. Acknowledging that the status quo is the status quo is no justification for anti-human, unsuccessful policies. If humiliating and invasive TSA policies actually helped deter dangerous people from getting into airports, this could serve as justification. But they don't. 

So what is the solution? Focusing on violating the rights of specific citizens, as opposed to indiscriminate personal privacy violations, seems too small a step to count as an improvement. And it's clear that current airport security policies don't work. See as an example the recent case of Nigerian Olajide Noibi who managed to fly from JFK to LAX with expired IDs and a fake boarding pass—hear the former head of security for Israeli El Al airlines speak of the futility of full body scans and profiling—read disturbing anecdotes about attractive women being subjected to body scans and pat downs more often than men. 

Robert Poole at Reason Magazine offers one solution: risk-based screening. Separate flyers into three groups and place security focus on the high risk passengers. Regular passengers would still be subjected to random searchers, but would be allowed to keep their shoes and carry liquids. He notes that the Department of Homeland Security already operates on a similar principle. 

The adage coined by Benjamin Franklin is too simple: we always sacrifice some liberty for some security. But we mustn’t sacrifice our dignity for security theater by allowing our humanity to be violated because that’s how it’s done. Profiling is not the answer. 

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