Saturday, December 18, 2010

Spread 'Em (For Safety)

On November 13th 2010, a passenger named John Tyner attempted to board a flight from San Diego International Airport. Apparently Mr. Tyne wished to avoid submitting himself to the much-debated full body scan machines so he was walked through a metal detector and asked to submit to a pat-down. Once he was removed from line, a TSA employee explained that during the search they would be checking his “groin” area. Upon hearing this, Mr. Tyner eloquently replied "you touch my junk and I'm going to have you arrested.” This statement set in motion a chain of escalating absurdities that ultimately ended with Tyne’s ticket being refunded before being told neither he (nor his reclusive junk) would be allowed to fly.

The encounter was made all the more remarkable because John had captured much of the scene with his nearby cell-phone and posted it online. During the recording, Tyner insists that no one other than his wife and doctor should be accessing his “junk” and that he did not understand how “sexual assault can be made a condition of my flying." The confrontation, and resulting audio, has quickly become an Internet sensation and reignited the debate of personal privacy versus public safety (and whether or not “junk” is a viable euphemism for genitals).
John (Don't Touch My Junk) Tyner
Tyner’s argument was that being submitted to such rigorous screenings, whether through pat-downs or body-scan machines, is a growing example of the freedoms that the government has taken away from us since President Bush created the TSA in November of 2001. John’s notoriety may be exceptional, but his viewpoints are shared by a growing number of Americans who feel that safety officials are overstepping their boundaries.

The idea is that once all major airports receive body image scanners, passengers will have the option of receiving a pat-down or submitting themselves to the imaging machine. There are currently two main objections to the scanners:
  • We do not yet fully understand the long-term effects of exposing a human body to the image scanners and for frequent travelers (and airline personnel) this could pose a potential health risk.
  • I do not want a TSA employee leering at an electronic facsimile of my (or my child’s) naked body. What if they keep a copy and post it online? What assurances do I have that I will not appear on TSAHOTTIES.COM?
Both are valid concerns, but based on our current understanding of radiation exposure it would seem that unless you flew constantly or were employed as a crew member, your exposure levels would be fairly negligible. The invasion of privacy issue seems to have more traction and some countries are investigating whether or not the screening of children violates child pornography statutes.

I have done some research on the airport body scanners and while the images produced do allow the security agents to see under your clothes, the result is about as erotic as a dimply-lit Polaroid of a CPR dummy.

Others have argued that the TSA (despite their insistence to the contrary) is storing these images for some as yet unforeseen invasion of our civil liberties. While I doubt that the images are always destroyed, I am not sure what nefarious purpose the TSA could have for retaining such data.

Of course, since the scanners are not yet widely available many fliers are being subjected to pat downs. While I agree that having a complete stranger rub me down like a thoroughbred in the middle of a busy airport is unpleasant, I am willing to submit myself to it for the privilege of being suspended inside a metal Tylenol 30,000 feet in the atmosphere.

I recently watched a Roman Polanski film where the protagonist, an elected official, opined on the hypocrisy of the general public concerning airline travel. He proposed the following compromise:

Travelers will be given the choice of flying on an airline where all passengers have submitted themselves to rigorous security screenings and uncomfortable searches or they can elect to fly with an airline where all onboard were allowed on the plane without having to be searched, questioned, or screened in any way so as not to make them uncomfortable or infringe upon their freedoms. He wondered which airline would turn a profit. So do I.

There are those, however, who would argue that there is a viable middle-ground that America has left unexplored. This approach has been dubbed “Israelification” after the sovereignty which pioneered its use. At Tel Aviv Ben Gurion International Airport, visitors must pass through six layers of security that take a radically different approach to screening. The process is so efficient that the average time from the parking lot to a seat on the plane is around twenty-five minutes. So how does it work?
  1.  Everyone coming into the airport is screened at a roadside checkpoint before entering the parking lot. They are asked a few innocuous questions so that the screener can gauge their temperament and mental state.( If your temperament is unacceptable, I assume that you are shot.)
  2. You then pass through heavily armed guards who are trained to look for suspicious behavior as customers approach the ticket desk. (Like the kind of nervous demeanor a normal citizen might display in the presence of heavily armed guards.)
  3. Guards watching on camera will then select certain passengers to have run through metal detectors. (This includes known militants and Christian Slater.)
  4. Once you approach the ticket desk, you are asked another series of innocuous questions by the clerk who looks for behavior patterns. (Such as “How are you today?” or “Do find the imperialist dogma of the United States is detrimental to the moral fabric of our modern world?”)
  5. Your luggage is now placed through a screener machine that is surrounded by blast-proof glass that can withstand 100 kilos of plastic explosive. (If you have managed to calmly navigate an Israeli airport with enough plastic explosives to take out a Ford dealership, it would seem a shame to fall victim to such a rudimentary device.)   
  6. The last layer involves more trained personnel looking for behavioral patterns.(Such as open hostility at having your 100 kilos of plastic explosives confiscated during step 5.) They do not screen for liquids or ask you to remove your shoes. 
This onsite system, combined with tireless information gathering and threat analysis by Israeli intelligence agencies, allows their security to be pro-active instead of re-active. The real question, though, is does it work?

The last documented security breach at Tel Aviv Ben Gurion International Airport was in 2002 when a civilian accidentally carried his handgun on a flight. Not bad for a country with such tumultuous unrest. Of course, it must be kept in mind that Israel’s busiest airport only handled ten million passengers in 2009 which doesn’t even put it in the top fifty in terms of traffic (Atlanta handled over 88 million in the same time period) so it helps to place that in perspective. According to Rafi Sela, an international security consultant, there is one other important difference between Israel’s approach compared to the western world, “"Israelis, unlike Canadians and Americans, don't take s**t from anybody.”

I believe to an extent, we have embraced a sense of entitlement concerning commercial air travel. After all, life is possible without it. In Mr. Tyner’s case, he could have elected to get in his car and drive if he wished to avoid any violations of his privacy but like many of us he has become accustomed to the convenience that flight provides. Although we would never admit it, many of us vehemently denounce the TSA when they inconvenience us but secretly find their presence reassuring. If it comes down to privacy versus mid-flight catastrophe, I say bring on the “Nude-o-tron!”

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