Jeff Sural is a former official with the Transportation Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security.
The Transportation Security Administration's new airport screening procedures--body scanning machines and enhanced pat-downs--are justified in the context of our unfortunate reality. The reality is, bluntly, that bad people persist in trying to kill Americans en masse and in a way that captures global attention. Add the fact that the TSA's own covert testing had found that its screening methods weren't finding concealed items.
Regardless of recent, widely publicized attacks and thwarted plots, some Americans continue to question TSA security initiatives. Our narcissistic obsession with someone viewing or getting too close to our "junk" and anecdotes of pat-downs gone bad have diverted our attention from the seriousness of this reality.
Of course, nothing inspires adolescent humor and 24/7 media coverage faster than talk of people's privates. Such immaturity is fitting for the sophomoric event that triggered the visceral outrage and the follow-on protests. While collectively exhausting the deep well of potty jokes, most people displayed a firm grasp of our reality on Thanksgiving eve by opting out of "opt-out day." [See a roundup of editorial cartoons about air security.]
The banter about the infringement of our rights comes mostly from a small group of citizens and a large gaggle of pundits. Nevertheless, they have been effective in scrambling the wording, meaning, and judicial interpretations of the Fourth Amendment (which guards against unreasonable search and seizure). The courts have consistently upheld these types of searches as reasonable and legal.
Considering that only a small percentage of all travelers may need a pat-down--3 percent, according to the TSA--and independent studies prove these machines are not harmful to our health, most passengers understand the reasonableness of these new screening procedures.
Reasonable passengers don't put up much of a fuss about complying with safety and security requests when they place themselves in an airborne, pressurized aluminum tube and hurtle through space at close to the speed of sound. Wheels-up is not a good time to realize aviation security measures have fallen short. [See 5 ways to improve air security.]
Opponents of the screening procedures have argued for focusing resources on the highest risks or targeting the most likely threats. Most people agree with this concept. But implementing it is more difficult than it sounds. This is because the highest risks are "clean skins" (of no discoverable background) and lone wolves (who go awry alone, in secret, and often act without anyone knowing).
Because a person's past offers no indication of future behavior, these threats are almost impossible to detect. This not only diminishes the value of trusted or registered traveler programs; it makes it incredibly difficult to detect and stop threats. Period. Physical screening, in these cases, provides the most robust method of guarding against suicide bombers. [See a slide show of 6 vulnerable terrorist targets.]
Let's be honest. Pat-downs are a blunt instrument. But they are the best instrument if a passenger opts out of screening by machine. Body scanning machines are the best technological advancement at the checkpoints in decades. And their effectiveness continues to improve.
Our country is open and fluid, and keeping it that way presents a vulnerability Americans seem willing to accept in the face of a persistent threat. Still, one of the few points in our society that mandates scrutiny is the airport. The TSA provides arguably one of our last, though not our best, lines of defense. A little extra scrutiny at the checkpoint is a small price to pay to keep our larger society uninhibited.
Read why the TSA has its security priorities in the wrong place by the Heritage Foundation's Jenna Baker McNeill.
Corrected 12/22/2010: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified which amendment to the Constitution protects against unreasonable search and seizure. It is the Fourth Amendment.