Blanket Security or Security Blanket?

An image of Susan Hallowell, Director of the T...

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How do we value collective security versus personal safety and privacy? Lately, there has been increasing noise regarding the new body scanners and more invasive patdowns conducted by the TSA, to the point where there is now a call for a National Opt-Out Day on November 24, the busiest air travel day of the year.

I have personal concerns regarding both the safety of these new scanners and the security of the images generated by them. In particular, the backscatter scans produce radiation that, due to its design, may well significantly increase the risk for skin and breast cancers (more info here). Recently, I chose my airport security line carefully in order to avoid one of these new scanners.

But my behavior begs the real question. How much of our personal safety and privacy are we willing to give up for greater security? Moreover, what if we only gain a small amount of real security, but gain a lot of perceived security? This is an important question, because the bulk of the security changes instituted at airport checkpoints in the past decade are carefully orchestrated theater.

Here’s what I mean. After September, 2001, the public had a crisis of confidence in the safety of commercial air travel. In order to restore that confidence, something visible had to be done. On the other hand, it couldn’t be so onerous that business travelers would avoid flying due to the hassle. You can see how the needle has moved back and forth since then, as particular threats bubble up.

  • After Richard Reid, we had to remove our shoes and run them through the x-ray machines. This has been less consistently enforced in the past few years, though it still is most common.
  • After the explosives mixing plot in London was thwarted, we were forbidden from bringing liquids. Then we were allowed to bring liquids in vessels of up to three ounces, with all of them able to fit in a quart bag, per person. Officially, this policy remains in place. In practice, it’s no longer being enforced unless it’s violated egregiously.

If we recognize that it’s theater, the increase in risk that arises from the latest scanners is especially onerous. It’s a cost without a corresponding benefit. The time hassle is one thing, but increased health risks are another thing altogether.

So how much of your safety and privacy are you willing to give up for security theater? What about for real security? Are you OK with a shadow organization collecting reams of personal information on you as a means of profiling potential terrorists? What would prevent that information from later being used in more Orwellian ways?

Where should we set the boundaries?

Update: Alternet has more information on John Tyner, who is under investigation for refusing to be scanned. He has been threatened with a fine for leaving the premises, despite the fact that he left specifically because he was escorted off by TSA agents. Something to consider the next time you travel, I guess.

About Michael Weiss

Michael is now located at, along with Monotreme, filistro, and dcpetterson. Please make note of the new location.
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10 Responses to Blanket Security or Security Blanket?

  1. Bart DePalma says:

    This is getting far beyond stupid. The marginal gain in safety from running naked body scans and then performing body searches as if you were a perp after arrest is worth the massive invasion of privacy.

    Airport security is a defensive effort and defenses are more about deterrence than actually finding and stopping terrorists. I am not aware of a single terrorist stopped by airport security. This war is being fought and won offensively by intelligence gathering locating the terrorists before they launch their attacks.

  2. filistro says:

    Chickens always come home to roost sooner or later. This nonsense is the price being paid for the shameful, hysterical frenzy of fear that has been whipped up by the right wing for the past decade… and they’ve done it entirely for political gain. What a travesty.

    You can thank Dick Cheney for the fact that Americans look like ludicrous cowards, airport personnel are touching your junk… and somewhere, Osama bin Laden is laughing.

  3. I think it’s overly simplistic to blame this on Cheney. Regardless of what he may have done to whip up a frenzy, the same forces would have been at play to push the new security measures at the airports:

    1) Airlines need people to feel safe flying in order to maintain their business
    2) Nobody wants to be the guy who let the security guard down right before some other hijacking occurs

    Nonetheless, it does provide ample evidence that ObL got the US but good.

  4. filistro says:

    I disagree, Michael. Without the raw fear and the “US v Them” cowboy mentality of the Bush admin, this whole issue would have been approached more intelligently.

    Israelis per capita are far more at risk of terror attacks than Americans but they don’t get subjected to this kind of humiliation. Israeli security efforts are much more targeted to psychological factors and a well-informed, vigilant populace. The Bush approach was always to take a knee-jerk, simplistic, retributive approach and then keep fear at fever pitch to avoid scrutiny and opposition. The American public has paid dearly for this opportunistic idiocy… in their security, privacy and civil rights… not to mention their economy.

  5. @filistro,

    The Israeli approach to airport security is to have passengers arrive two hours before the flight departs. They really mean it. If they did that in the US, it would be sufficiently onerous that most business travelers would significantly curtail their travel, which would have a major impact on the airline industry. This is why I call it security theater. Its primary purpose is making people feel like they’re safer, rather than actually making them safer.

  6. shiloh says:

    Basically agree w/Bartles ~ shocking, eh.

    ie the terrorists already caught cheney/bush w/their pants down on 9/11 succeeding beyond their wildest dreams flying (2) commercial planes into the WTC towers, demolishing both and flying a plane into the frickin’ pentagon, let me repeat, the frickin’ pentagon totally embarrassing the U.S. military. That scenario was carried out to maximum effect/destruction of the U.S. psyche ~ no need to repeat.

    As a result, cheney/bush foolishly decided to attack Iraq unprovoked, the wrong target, hence, ergo, therefore wasting a lot of America’s blood and treasure which could have been better used to help We the People!

    al Queda smiled!

    And conservatives 😉 cheney/bush created more personal invasion of privacy bureaucracy by creating the Dept. of Homeland Security, again missing the target as they should have just reinforced the existing FBI and CIA agencies making them a functional unit, which they should have already been, but sadly weren’t as 9/11 revealed. Condi, Condi, Condi …

    Oh the irony of George Tenet receiving the Medal of Freedom, I digress.

    Let’s recap, shall we:

    The terrorists succeeded beyond their wildest dreams totally changin’ how Americans live and perform their daily activities, especially regarding leisure and cheney/bush wasted a lot of blood and treasure trying to look like John Wayne.

    Wall St. and American airlines were at a standstill for about a week …


    The next attack on America will most likely be an NBC attack.

    Yes Virginia er Bart, as Keith and Rachel are coming to get ‘ya lol be afraid, be very afraid!

    Always good to end a depressing post w/a little comedy 😀 … very little.

    take care, blessings

  7. Monotreme says:

    Best idea so far.

  8. filistro says:


    (From your link)… did you hate that moment after phys ed, when you headed to the showers and you realized being part Irish had certain unflattering physical manifestations?

    Okay, my interest is piqued. It has also peaked. In fact, I even peeked on google, and I’m still not sure. Does “being part Irish” mean you are over or under-endowed?

    Enquiring minds want to know.

    Note: I don’t want to know any more than we have already discussed about the physical endowments of spiny echidnas. Every time we talk about that topic I have disturbing images that trouble my sleep.

  9. @Monotreme
    Best. Idea. Ever.

  10. Monotreme says:


    Not absolutely sure, but I think it may have to do with being uncircumcised.

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