Outside editorial: Time for a sober discussion about security trade-offs

Posted: Friday, November 19, 2010

The following editorial first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News:

If anybody had tried to frisk Americans 25 years ago when they were boarding airplanes, or put them in newfangled machines that showed them naked - well, just imagine. "It's an outrage," they'd have bellowed, and rightly so. Fury would have spread as rapidly as it could through analog telephone lines.

But the reaction this month to the Transportation Security Administration's new airport screening measures? That's hard to fathom. Oh, sure, the tactics are alarming, but they shouldn't have surprised anyone. They've been in the works for more than a year. More to the point: Americans pretty much asked for them.

When the loudest voices in the national security debate insist that the government must keep us safe by any means necessary, this is what we get.

The shoe bomber was our early warning. Because he got onto a plane with explosives in thick-soled sneakers, we all have to send our flimsy sandals through X-ray.

Then there was the Christmas Day underwear bomber: All over cable TV - and not just on Fox - lawmakers and commentators demanded to know how he could have gotten on a plane, why the president didn't immediately address the nation and how our socialist law enforcers could even have considered reading this guy his Miranda rights.

This for an attack that, like that of the shoe bomber and others, failed - at least partly because security made it impossible to carry an effective explosive device. But from the hue and cry, you'd have thought we were losing a plane a week. The message from the airwaves and the Internet was: Government isn't doing enough to keep us safe. (Yes, that's the same government we need less of.)

National security officials go to bed every night in terror of having blood on their hands. Fear-mongers push them to do everything under the sun to protect us - even infringing on civil liberties. Sometimes the knee-jerk responses don't solve real problems. Other times, and the pat-downs may be one, the trade-off of personal privacy may simply be too great.

But nobody ever says, hey, relax, we caught the underwear guy and the shoe bomber - way to go, just keep being vigilant.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has defended the backscatter X-ray machines and pat-downs as important safeguards. But we sympathize with the civil libertarians, and regular folks, who don't want screeners looking at naked pictures of them or touching their - ahem - junk.

Maybe it's time to finally have a national debate on how much privacy we're willing to sacrifice for safety.

It's definitely time to ratchet back the fear-mongering, but some people benefit politically when voters are afraid. Texas' 1st Congressional District, for instance, just re-elected Louie Gohmert, who asserts that pregnant women from the Middle East are traveling to the U.S. to have "terror babies."

So this is a call for voices of reason, and a sober conversation about how far we should go - and what we should give up - to be safe. We raised this question when wiretaps and warrantless searches were an issue, but it was hard to get folks' attention back then. Maybe naked pictures and full-body pat-downs are just what we need.

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