TSA Scanner Debate Shows Americans Are Selective About Privacy

Many Americans are a bit late, and a bit selective, in their reaction to privacy violations.

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If necessity is the mother of invention, then personal violation is surely the father of principle.

How else to describe the new outrage over the Transportation Security Administration’s enhanced pat-downs of airline passengers? Travelers are understandably annoyed that the TSA is getting more aggressive in its examination of fliers, examinations that include intimate physical contact many of us would not consider until the third date. This, of course, comes after (or instead of) a full-body scan that allows complete strangers to assess how we all look naked. Shopping for bathing suits after a weekend of holiday feasting would be less humiliating.

[Check out a roundup of political cartoons on air security.]

But the outrage wasn’t as evident when Washington, in post-9/11 hysteria, decided it was OK for law enforcement to enter people’s homes, rifle through their underwear drawers, look through their things, and then leave without even informing the inhabitants that their property had been searched. Or when it was determined that the government could send someone a national security letter demanding the disclosure of certain documents or information—without probable cause, without judicial oversight, and with a gag order that prohibits the recipient of such a letter from discussing it, let alone challenging it in court. Or when the Bush administration decided waterboarding was a legitimate interrogation enhancer.

But many Americans likely presumed none of this would ever apply to them. They’re not terrorists, they surmised. So why would anyone need to search their homes or violate their privacy?

But all are equal in the airport screening area, passengers are grudgingly finding. And Americans are getting very irritated at being the target of security searches when they know themselves they do not present a threat. Polls show that Americans indeed support the use of the full-body scanners, but that support also appears to be slipping of late; a new ABC poll shows that 74 percent endorse the use of the machines, down from the 81 percent who supported the scans in a CBS poll released last week.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Should the TSA rely on full-body scanners?]

No one could argue that the TSA doesn’t need to conduct adequate screening of passengers; the foiled effort last Christmas by a man who hid explosives in his underwear underscores that unfortunate reality. But many Americans are a bit late, and a bit selective, in their reaction to privacy violations. If a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged (or taxed, for that matter), then the new civil libertarians may be passengers who dared to fly during the holiday season.

  • Check out a roundup of political cartoons on air security.
  • Read more about national security.
  • Follow the money in Congress.