Friday, December 31, 2010

Airport Security

     Airport security policies are too extreme because the threat of an attack is minimal to the point of insignificance, airport security is ineffective, and full-body scanners pose a health risk.  In the aftermath of the 9/11 disasters, airport security was tightened substantially to accommodate the ever-increasing "terrorism threat".  The Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) recent unveiling of new security tactics including the usage of "Advanced Imaging Technology" (AIT) and Enhanced Pat-Downs has been very controversial.  According to the TSA, the AIT's can detect not only metallic weapons, but non-metallic weapons as well.  This is done by bouncing electromagnetic waves off a subject's body creating a three dimensional black-and-white image in the case of the Millimeter Wave Unit.  In the case of the Backscatter Unit, this is done by creating a reflection of the displayed body by projecting low X-ray beams over the subject (Transportation Security Administration).  Because few details regarding the nature of the pat-downs and body scanners have been released by officials, the TSA has been highly vulnerable to corruption and abuse.  Unintended consequences of stricter airport security have included increased road fatalities from would-be air travelers deciding to drive and a significant toll on the airline industry.
     One major reason why airport security is too extreme is that the measures currently in place are ineffective.  Just after airport security was tightened in the aftermath of the 9/11 disasters, the TSA's red team, which is in charge of testing airport security, was able to secretly take weapons and bomb materials through airport security 100% of the time.  By 2006, the agency made little progress in the detection of hazardous items.  75% of the fake bombs failed detection at the Los Angeles International Airport and 60% of fake bomb materials made it through the Chicago O'Hare International Airport (McManus).  In addition, the TSA's Screening Passengers by Observation (SPOT) program failed to identify 17 known terrorists who traveled through eight airports that had the program implemented on 23 occasions.  One of the terrorists that slipped through the cracks was Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square bomber whose attack failed (McManus).  To make matters worse, the TSA's annual budget has surged from $700 million when the administration was founded to $6.9 billion in 2010 further straining the Federal Government's budget.  That's not all.  The federal stimulus package also granted an additional $73 million to the TSA to outfit airports across the nation with full-body scanners.  

      Another major problem with airport security is that the controversial scanners pose a health hazard.  Although the TSA claims that the radiation emitted by full-body scanners are relatively low, amounting to a thousandth of that received by typical chest X-rays, many independent scientists have disputed this.  For example, a Physics professor at the University of Arizona at Tempe has found that the scanners emit 10 times more radiation than the TSA claims (Airguide).  Although the amount of radiation emitted from the scanners may in fact be low, it's very dangerous because the ionized radiation received is cumulative and could build up to dangerous levels over time.  These scanners are also dangerous because unlike medical X-ray machines which require people to wear radiation shielding, people are unshielded when undergoing the full-body scan.  Many independent scientists have also warned of the potentially serious health risks the scanners present to pregnant women and the elderly.  For pilots, flight attendants, and frequent fliers, the effect of the ionizing radiation emitted by full body scanners could be profoundly devastating.  Pilots already receive greater amounts of radiation than nearly every other category of worker in the U.S. including employees at nuclear power plants (Airport Security Report).  During a solar flare, pilots and flight crew members can receive the equivalent amount of radiation of getting 100 chest X-rays each hour during a typical Atlantic crossing.  Requiring people who are exposed to whooping amounts of radiation everyday they're on the job to go through radiation-emitting scanners means greater radiation exposure and statistics indicate that flight crew members have higher-than-average caner rates as a result.    

     Perhaps the biggest reason why airport security is too extreme is that the threat of an attack is minimal to the point of insignificance.  To assess how great the threat of terrorism really is, we have to compare it with other every-day risks.  For example, the chance of dying in an airplane crash is 1 in 400,000, the chance of dying as a pedestrian is 1 in 48,500, and the chance of drowning is 1 in 88,000.  In addition, the chance of being murdered is 1 in 16,500 and the chance of being struck by lightning is 1 in 80,000 (Bailey).  However, even if just one of America's commercial flights was hijacked and crashed once a week, the chance of dying would be 1 in 135,000 (Bailey).  If terrorists managed to commit an attack equaling the magnitude of 9/11, the one-year chance of dying would be 1 in 100,000.  As seen from these statistics, the risk of death associated with terrorist activity on commercial flights does not even come close to the risk of dying in an automobile accident, as a pedestrian, in a fire, or by being murdered. 

     Although the government probably implemented the strict airport security measures currently in place with the best intentions, the reality is that the security administered by the TSA is ineffective.  In the government's pursuit to ensure the highest level of security to travelers, it must implement security measures that are proportional to the threat and not overblown by fear.  Not only are the enhanced pat downs and full-body scanners a nuisance, but they have proven to be dangerous and ineffective.  Mandating people, especially pilots and flight crews who are already exposed to extraordinary amounts of radiation while on the job, to go through radiation-emitting fully body scanners is not the correct approach to take.  To successfully protect the flying public, the TSA must shift its focus from the detection of weapons to the detection of terrorists through behavioral analysis and effective watch lists.  It must also replace security equipment that has proven to be ineffective and dangerous with safer, less intrusive systems that are better able to detect weapons.  Despite how minimal the threat may be, security that is balanced, moderate, and proportional to the threat is needed to ensure safety without the deprivation of liberty.  It is for these reasons that airport security is too extreme and should be reformed with all deliberate speed.

Works Cited

"Travel Health Watch." Airguide Online (2010). General OneFile. Web.

"APA Advises Against Full Body Scanners." Airport Security Report 18.23 (2010). General OneFile. Web. 

Bailey , Ronald. "Don't Be Terrorized." Reason Magazine 11 Aug. 2006: Print.

McManus, John F. "A look at the TSA." The New American 6 Dec. 2010: 44. General OneFile. Web.

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