What price of dignity is the value of safety?

Published 8:56 am Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Kathleen Parker, A Little Sanity

In the accelerating debate about airport pat-downs that feel like a clumsy third date and body scans that border on Peeping Tom shows, it’s hard to find a sane place to land.

Kathleen Parker

Is this really for our own good? Or are we trading what’s left of our human dignity by participating in a Kafkaesque farce that more closely resembles a college fraternity psychology experiment devised around a keg:

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“OK, here’s the plan. Americans are terrified of an airplane bomber, right? So let’s see what how much we can get them to do if we promise them safety.”

“Like what?”

“I dunno, like let us touch their genitals and use scanners that show them naked, stuff like that.”

“No WAY!”

In the three weeks since the Transportation Security Administration began its new scanner/pat-down procedures, hundreds of people in fact have protested. Some have reported to consumer agencies and the American Civil Liberties Union that they’ve been touched aggressively in the genital area. Others have reported inappropriate commentary about their physiques.

Fair question: Is all this worth it? What price in dignity and privacy are we willing to pay for the illusion of safety? It’s not as though flying is a delightful experience without the sexual harassment.

This Thanksgiving Eve, some number of unhappy travelers are planning to demonstrate their opposition to TSA’s expanded powers by protesting at security check-in or by boycotting travel altogether. Reassurances from TSA, meanwhile, are less than edifying.

Even though, yes, the scans essentially reveal your jock and bra size, inspectors are sitting elsewhere and don’t know the human identity of the exposed corpus.

Nor, we can guess, do they care. The absence of nudist airports isn’t on many lists of society’s regrettable oversights.

Those who wish not to submit to the body scan, whether out of modesty or concerns about radiation exposure, can submit instead to intimate frisking. Children under 12 are given modified pat-downs, though this isn’t much comfort. Touching a 13-year-old boy or girl, possibly the most sensitive creature on the planet, is supposed to be just hunky-dory?

In calculating my own travel plans, I’ve determined that flying home round-trip for Thanksgiving, I will be scanned or handled going and coming. My predisposition at this writing: I’m just not that into turkey.

This isn’t merely a matter of modesty, though that is a consideration. I don’t like the idea of some stranger examining my concessions to gravity without my permission. Surrendering to rule shouldn’t be confused with granting permission. One is submission; the other an invitation to mutual consent.

As to the alternative, no thank you. The idea of a stranger, even one of the same sex, foraging around my private principalities is simply unacceptable. Forget the creepiness factor, which is sufficient; consider the principle — quickly! — before you get used to the notion that government has the right to do Whatever Is Necessary To Protect You.

From what, if not this?

It isn’t at all clear, meanwhile, that such searches will ensure greater safety. Theoretically the idea is to protect us from future would-be “Christmas bombers.” You recall the chap who tried to blow up a plane by igniting explosive material concealed in his undies. So now none of us is entitled to pantaloon protection.

Heaven forbid the next inept, would-be terrorist conceals his flammables in his nether region. Shall soon our interior caves and corridors require exploration to ensure that the system works?

It is further reassuring to recall that the Christmas bomber was foiled in his mission when a fellow passenger tackled him. Whereupon, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that the tackling was evidence that “the system” works. Ah.

And what happens to these glorious images of dehumanized Americans once their bodies are scanned? How long before we see a montage of the digitally denuded on some website?

Notwithstanding government promises to the contrary, they may be preserved. Earlier this year, the U.S. Marshals Service conceded that some 35,000 images from a scanner at a security checkpoint at a Florida courthouse had been saved.

The TSA insists that though storage is possible, the storing feature isn’t activated when devices are installed at airports. Small comfort.

But more alarming than the apparatuses is our willingness to go lowing into the night. Incrementally, we adapt to the stripping of civil liberties until, with the passage of time and the blinkering of generational memory, we no longer remember when things were otherwise.

Kathleen Parker’s e-mail address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.