The Issue In the wake of the failed Christmas Day terrorist attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253, is stepping up airport security the best way to ensure that Americans are safe?
Since September 11th, there has been significant debate over what should be done to protect the United States from terrorism. Countries have been invaded, a cabinet department has been created, new mechanisms to promote communication within the intelligence community have been established, terror trials have been held and detainees have been tortured.
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While a smart and effective national counterterrorism policy that uses a diverse set of strategies is vital, a crucial fact about 9/11 is frequently overlooked: despite all the other governmental failings, if airport security had been adequate, not a single person would have died.
The hijackers were able to take control of the airplanes with small knives and box cutters, which were not prohibited by the Federal Aviation Administration prior to the attacks (although CBS News reported in 2002 that an airline industry manual instructed security screeners to confiscate such items). Before 9/11, government regulations also allowed dangerous items like baseball bats and scissors onto airplanes. A little bit of common sense could have saved a lot of lives.
The fact that such weapons are now banned from airplanes makes another 9/11-style hijacking virtually impossible. No matter how strong and powerful al Qaeda may be, as long as TSA screeners do their jobs, no terrorist will be able to take control of an airplane cockpit.
As we saw on Christmas Day, however, airport security has not improved enough. The system is pretty good at examining your bags, coats and shoes. And it is pretty good at detecting metal on your person. But the metal detector does not detect explosives, and that deficiency nearly led to the deaths of hundreds last month.
Fortunately, there is a remedy. A full-body scanner would have detected the explosives in the underwear of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Such scanners can and should be employed as part of the regular screening process.
Some worry that the radiation emitted by these devices would be detrimental to passengers’ health. But most medical experts disagree. Dr. Andrew J. Einstein of Columbia University Medical Center estimates that “a passenger would need to be scanned … about 200,000 times to receive the amount of radiation equal to one typical CT scan [and] will receive much more radiation … while flying than from passing through a scanner.” It shouldn’t take an Einstein to realize that full-body scanners pose little health risk.
Some voice privacy concerns because the screener viewing the image generated by the scanner can basically see you naked. But the screener only sees a faceless, identity-less, computer image of a body. Unless you are trying to keep private the fact that you have certain anatomical features, privacy should not be an issue. A system could be set up for those who would prefer not to have full-body scans or pat-downs — these flyers could pay a fee to receive a background check to ensure that they pose no security risk, balancing security and privacy concerns.
Others may claim that the cost of such scanning machines outweighs the benefit. Those with this viewpoint could accurately note that, up to this point, the use of full-body scans would have saved zero lives (if the Christmas Day attack had been successful, it would be a different story). In many cases, our fear of terrorism vastly exceeds the actual risk of dying from a terrorist attack. But I would assert that in terms of dollars spent per future life saved, installing full-body scanners is a much more cost effective way to prevent terrorism deaths than sending more troops to Afghanistan.
The key to airport security is to stay one step ahead of those who would do harm in the skies. We should have banned knives and box cutters before 9/11, and we should have used full-body scanners before this past Christmas. But this is not an excuse for complacency today.
We need to do a better job of connecting the dots in the intelligence community, dismantling terrorist networks and winning the hearts and minds of the Muslim world, so that we are not creating more terrorists than we destroy. (And it is important to remember that there are plenty of non-Muslim terrorists.) But it is much easier to catch a bomb in somebody’s underwear than it is to prevent somebody from putting a bomb in his underwear in the first place. Full-body scanners and other common-sense security measures need to take off.
Matthew Ellison is a senior in Branford College.