By Eugene Robinson
It’s hard to love the Transportation Security Administration, especially now that airport personnel seem so intent on touching people’s junk. But the TSA’s job isn’t to be adorable, it’s to be infallible—and also, apparently, to suffer being unfairly maligned.
Sure, the “don’t touch my junk” guy touched a nerve. I spend enough time fighting my way through airport security lines to share his frustration at ever-changing procedures that seem capricious, intrusive and sometimes just bizarre. But what, specifically, is the alternative?
Last Christmas, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to bring down an airliner by detonating explosives concealed in his underwear. The device did not properly explode, but the incident sensitized the TSA to the danger of terrorist bombs that might make it past a metal detector—hence the rush to install full-body scanners that give a clear view of what’s beneath a person’s clothing, junk and all.
An unacceptable, un-American invasion of privacy? That’s not what critics were saying at the time. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s assessment of the underwear bombing attempt—that “the system worked” because a fellow passenger jumped Abdulmutallab—was ridiculed. If there was technology that could have detected the underpants device, critics asked, why hadn’t it been in place?
So now the scanners are being installed—and some people complain that they do too good a job, clear-picturewise. The TSA’s response is to give travelers the option of submitting to a manual search that is comparably thorough. It would defeat the whole purpose of the machines if people could just say “no thanks” and then undergo a cursory search that might leave a device like the underwear bomb undiscovered. The pat-down, if it comes to that, has to be thorough.
Is all of this really necessary? That depends on how safe we want to be, or rather how safe we want to feel.
The device that Abdulmutallab was wearing is believed to have been designed and built by Osama bin Laden’s affiliate organization in Yemen, called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. This group has been increasingly active and makes no secret of its continuing desire to blow U.S. airliners out of the sky.
On Sunday, AQAP boasted of putting two sophisticated bombs—disguised as printer ink cartridges—into cargo shipments bound for the United States last month. The powerful devices were intercepted en route, in Britain and Dubai, and appeared to have been designed to detonate in transit.
In other words, these AQAP people are resourceful and determined. Now, we could decide that treating air-traveling Americans like Guantanamo inmates is going too far—that by doing so, we invest a bunch of terrorists with power they do not deserve. That might make sense, but we’d have to understand the consequences.
For any individual, the chance of being killed or injured in a terrorist attack would still be infinitesimal. But the chance that somewhere, somehow, AQAP or some other terrorist group eventually downs an aircraft would greatly increase.
We have not decided, and probably will not decide, to put this in the category of acceptable risks, along with plane crashes due to bad weather or flocks of geese. The economic and psychological damage from terrorist attacks is so great that we have resolved to prevent them. This is what we ask the TSA to do.
What the critics really mean is not that the TSA should let underwear bombers board planes. What they’re saying is: Don’t search me, and don’t search my grandmother. Just search the potential terrorists.
In other words, they want profiling. That’s a seductive idea, I suppose, if you don’t spend a lot of time worrying about civil liberties. But it couldn’t possibly work. Our terrorist enemies may be evil but they’re not stupid.
If we only search people who “look like terrorists,” al-Qaeda will send people who don’t fit the profile. It’s no accident that most of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers were from Saudi Arabia; at the time, it was easier for Saudi nationals to get U.S. visas than it was for citizens of other Arab countries. If terrorists are clever enough to hide powerful explosives in ink cartridges, then eventually they’ll find a suicide bomber who looks just like you, me or Granny.
Be patient with the TSA. And have a happy Thanksgiving.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group