Commentary and information about public safety and security, intelligence and counterintelligence, open government and secrecy, and other issues in northern Idaho and eastern Washington.

Location: Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, United States

Raised in Palouse, WA. Graduated from Washington State University. US Army (Counterintelligence). US Secret Service (Technical Security Division) in Fantasyland-on-the-Potomac and Los Angeles. Now living in north Idaho.

Monday, December 27, 2004

"I Do Not Understand It...At All"

In The CDA Blog on December 24, 2004, Phil Corless linked his readers to another blog, The Happy Homeschooler. The Happy Homeschooler's entry was entitled "Security is Not a Joke", and it recounted how the author and her young son were searched by airport screeners. Mr. Corless's comment about the searches was, "There's really something seriously wrong with the system when they are searching a little boy's genitals and his mother's breasts at airport security. I do not understand it... at all."

It is difficult for decent people to accept there are amoral people in the world, people who will purposefully and willingly exploit anyone including women, infants, toddlers, the elderly, the infirm, and the psychologically disabled. French sociologist Emile Durkheim discussed this amorality (his term was anomie) in his 1893 book "The Division of Labor in Society". Anomie was Durkheim's explanation for the breakdown in social norms. Our social norms control behaviors in an ordered society. When the norms that regulate how we behave begin to break down, we see people engaging in unacceptable behaviors such as trying to hijack or destroy aircraft in flight. As that happens our preventive and remedial responses are likely to also become more aggressive and less acceptable.

What Mr. Corless believes is seriously wrong with the (airport security screening) system is less attributable to the screeners' methods than to the behaviors of those who would circumvent security measures.

Airport screeners, or at least the security professionals who write the policies and procedures they follow, understand some simple facts: It requires very little material to make an aircraft fall out of the sky and crash into the ground at terminal velocity. All on board an aircraft are likely to die if that happens.

Security professionals also understand that the items necessary to assemble a small destructive device on board an aircraft can be concealed in or under the clothing of children or under a woman's breasts or in body cavities. The terrorists understand and exploit our cultural unwillingess to touch another person's body in a way and in places most likely to reveal cleverly concealed items.

Full body scanning fluoroscopes are available. They allow security screeners to observe the entire body without the passenger's being touched or disrobed. But this technology has detractors who fear that a machine which can visually resolve concealed items will have sufficient resolution to allow screeners to see "private" components of our physiology. They also object to exposing the passenger to even a low level of ionizing radiation. So, what if the image indicates an object that must be resolved by closer examination? How much closer? How much more intimate?

Yes, there are technologies that can "smell" explosive or incendiary materials. So the alarm goes off on a four-year old passenger. Then what? What are the alternatives available for resolving the alarm? Have the child disrobe?

There are no simple, socially and culturally sterile solutions immediately available to airport security screeners or their bosses. To paraphrase Newton's Third Law of Motion, for every security action there will be an equal (or greater) and opposite reaction. We may need to begrudgingly accept that this security versus terrorist tug-of-war will be going on indefinitely.


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