US & Canada

Airport security and the American soul

A traveller being screened at Minneapolis-St Paul airport
Image caption Opponents say many screening procedures are "security theatre"

As Americans count the blessings which providence has showered over them this Thanksgiving holiday, a division has emerged over how they should view the security staff on duty at the nation's airports.

Should they acclaim the staff of the Transportation Security Administration - who are, after all, working on a public holiday - for protecting them with their ceaseless vigilance?

Or should they find something sinister in the new full-body screening machines and pat-down procedures which are making air travel here an ever less joyful experience?

At the heart of the debate are conflicting impulses within the American soul towards state authority.

Liberty v security

Here in the US, there is a nearly universal patriotic regard for any uniformed defender of the land. But it co-exists with a deep-seated suspicion of any expansion of the rights of the authorities over the rights of the individual citizen.

Most Americans have a healthy scepticism towards centralised authority which one does not generally find in Europeans. In extreme cases that suspicion can develop into the view that government is a kind of larcenous conspiracy against the people.

Hence the passions aroused by changes in the way air passengers are screened as they pass through American airports.

We are all wearily accustomed to the process of passing through metal-detectors as we head towards departure gates. We throw away our half-drunk bottles of water, remove our shoes, take our laptops out of our bags and hand over our coats to be X-rayed.

Don't touch my junk!

As with all security measures of course, it is hard to say how well the process works.

The equipment may not be capable of detecting plastic explosives for example, yet it is possible that the very existence of the process deters terrorists who might otherwise be planning to attack our flights.

Regardless, up until now, the procedures have been largely non-invasive and some Americans are outraged that that is no longer the case.

In those airports where full-body scanning machines (or "nudie-scans" as some commentators prefer) have been introduced, the choice on offer is simple.

You can pass through the scanner - which provides screeners with an X-ray image of your body beneath your clothing - or you may refuse, but then you must submit to thorough pat-down search.

The procedure is pretty intimate - there would be no point to it if wasn't - but it has incensed some travellers who see the firm patting down of thighs, buttocks and breasts as a process which would be considered sexual assault in any other circumstances.

Those Americans have an improbable catchphrase - you can buy it on t-shirts - which was first uttered by a passenger in California who made a recording as he was frisked.

"Don't Touch My Junk," he warned the searchers, concerned that the pat-down was getting uncomfortably close to his genitals

Groaning guts, bulging butts

Not everyone who objects to the new procedures does so on the same grounds.

There is the privacy issue of course. Those of us with groaning guts and bulging butts don't necessarily want them displayed to the security staff, even if we have nothing on our consciences but a tendency to eat too much.

Image caption Politicians like Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had defended the full body scans

There is a constitutional matter too - the fourth amendment to the US Constitution guarantees Americans the right to be secure from unreasonable search.

The founding fathers, who authored the Constitution, could not have foreseen the threat of airborne terrorism of course (or indeed the possibility of powered flight) but constitutional rights are the cornerstone of the American sense of liberty. Government tinkers at its peril.

Some critics believe all the airport screening is part of a kind of "theatre of security" which is designed to reassure the public but wouldn't actually deter a sophisticated terrorist.

The hijackers of United Flight 93, the shoe-bomber and the Christmas Day attacker were all thwarted by brave and vigilant fellow passengers runs this argument, not by the authorities.

And finally there is a kind of techno-libertarian point at stake in all this. Who exactly gets to see these scans and how long are they kept?

Thanksgiving exodus

Over the last week, as the US prepared for the busiest travel day of the year, senior security officials have popped up repeatedly on television to remind Americans that the new procedures have a purpose, are designed to keep them safe, and have been made as non-invasive as possible.

Image caption Amputees, cancer survivors and young children are also subject to "pat-downs"

It's a tough argument to make when TV producers have dug up disturbing stories like the experience of a flight attendant - a cancer survivor - who was forced to remove a prosthetic breast when it showed up on a scan. Her dignity and patience struck a rather humbling note in a week of strident opinions.

Thanksgiving Day was seen as a kind of frontline in this debate when protesters talked of deliberately slowing down security in protest the increasing demands of aviation safety.

As I prepared to join the great exodus to the mid-west, the early signs were that those calls for protest had been largely ignored. Largely, of course, because Americans want to get where they're going.

But it might also mean that for all the anger, irritation and uncertainty over the new procedures, many air passengers grudgingly accept that they'd rather be safe than sorry.

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