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Could new scanners be first step towards sensible security?

Posted: December 13, 2011 - 1:00am

Recent travelers to Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport might have seen the first step in a long walk back to restoring sanity to America’s air travel security procedures.

Anchorage recently received new full-body scanners that help detect foreign objects — possibly weapons, but much more likely a medical device, wallet or cell phone — without creating invasive images of people going through them.

Instead, according to a report in the Anchorage Daily News, “the scanner’s software displays a generic, gray human form and indicates any concealed metallic or nonmetallic objects that might be under the traveler’s clothes.”

The article further describes how the location of an object found by one of the new scanners is highlighted in yellow on that generic form, narrowing down the anatomy screener’s need to look more closely. A passenger is asked to search the area indicated himself to see if a forgotten item raised the scanner’s suspicion.

Of course, this new machine — which the article states is expected to be in Juneau shortly after the first of the year — does nothing to mitigate the hassle of airport security — long lines, removing shoes and unloading laptops, iPads and so on from a briefcase before reversing the process at the end — hopefully well before your plane takes off. And, the undignified and intrusive pat-down procedures are still in place which involve probing in ways formerly reserved for the wedding night — or at least the third date.

Still, the new scanners no longer take a detailed under-the-clothes picture, and add another step between initial concern and a physical search of the body. This means the Transportation Security Administration has taken an unfortunately unusual measure that means less overbearing and overreaching security, not more.

In the 10-plus years since 9/11, American air travelers have seen color-coded “threat-level” charts, the end, by and large, of accompanying someone to or waiting for them at the gate, the aforementioned removal of electronics and shoes (fortunately, the discovery of the would-be “underwear bomber” never led to our stripping down to our BVDs), the inability to bring more than tiny amounts of liquid past security and the pat-downs that turn travelers into suspects.

Of course, the chart system never stated Americans should have less than an “elevated” fear of impending attack and spent nearly five straight years at the two highest levels, “high” and “severe.” This led to its replacement by a system that only alerts us when there is an “elevated” or “imminent” threat, another small step towards sane security.

But those steps have been few and far between. The other measures may do a lot to make us “feel” secure — a September poll conducted by the libertarian-leaning Reason magazine showed 69 percent of Americans believe TSA has made air travel safer — but their actual usefulness remains unclear. Remember, a malfunction, not security, kept would-be underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from blowing up a December 2009 flight.

Only 49 percent of respondents to that Reason survey expressed confidence the TSA would actually catch a would-be terrorist, while 44 percent lacked that confidence. Those poll results could be explained by an unexpressed belief enhanced security measures at airports put on a good show, but even their intrusiveness won’t stop a determined or intelligent terrorist.

It’s too early to tell whether the new scanners mark the end of ever-increasing security, no matter the cost to dignity and civil liberty.

Hopefully, though, they represent a realization on behalf of the TSA and the Department of Homeland Security that defenses against terrorism need to evolve, not increase in order to maximize safety.

Whether that happens is largely up to us as citizens and travelers. We need to keep insisting security make sense.

We also must acknowledge there is no such thing as absolute and complete safety, no matter how draconian our security measures become. Sensible security, though, can catch the overwhelming majority of would-be attackers while allowing everyone else to travel with some semblance of dignity and ease.

Let’s keep encouraging our government to take meaningful measures to actually keep us safe while forgoing those that make us feel safe at the expense of our dignity.

• Charles Ward is Deputy Managing Editor of the Juneau Empire. The views expressed here are his own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Empire’s editorial board.

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