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Security theater vs. real dangers

Posted: December 3, 2010 4:10 p.m.
Updated: December 6, 2010 5:00 a.m.

Great quotations aren't what they used to be. History is marked by signature lines like "We shall overcome" and "Give me liberty or give me death." To those, the age of YouTube adds, "If you touch my junk, I'll have you arrested."

Such was the memorable declaration of a disgruntled airline passenger in the clutches of a San Diego International Airport security pat-down. In this year of political revolts and cultural grumpiness, the moody passenger touched a national zeitgeist -- like New York gubernatorial candidate Jimmy McMillan's "Rent is too damn high" or American Idol tryout Larry Platt's, "(Lookin' Like a Fool with Your) Pants on the Ground."

Before you could say "passenger rage," an online protest called for a National Opt-Out Day of refusals by passengers to submit to scans on Thanksgiving eve, one of the busiest travel days of the year.

"This story tapped right into the central nervous system of the collective consciousness," Mark Ghuneim, chief executive of Trendrr, a social media measurement company, told the New York Times. "It was huge."

Huge news, yes. But, the actual event? Not so much. As my little family and I braced for what normally is our worst holiday travel experience of the year, we found everything to be uncommonly smooth, even in the security lines. That's at least partly because a lot of passengers planned ahead to avoid protest-related problems and partly because the Transportation Safety Administration appeared to have more security personnel than normal waiting to whisk us through, especially if we did not request a pat-down. Thanks, protesters.

Frankly, I think it says something curious about today's times that so many of the same free spirits who endorsed "enhanced interrogation" (aka torture) of terror suspects are so offended now by "enhanced security procedures," including full-body scanners and pat-downs. Have they forgotten 9/11? The thought of their family being "fondled," as the protesters say, is hardly more horrific than the thought of my family being blown to smithereens.

Nor do I envy the TSA folks. Despite the humor that their jobs invite from late-night comedians, I don't think most of them look forward to groping passengers any more than we passengers enjoy being groped. It's a tough job, but I don't think we'd be much happier if they were not there to do it.

Nevertheless, I share the irritation of the protesters over what they call "security theater," the distinct impression that the elaborate procedures taken by TSA and the rest of the Department of Homeland Security are designed less to keep us safe than to give us a little show to impress us with how hard they are working.

For example, Homeland Security is proposing to get rid of its color-coded terror alert system. That would mean no more airport loudspeakers announcing that the "security threat level is code orange" or some other color that nobody understands anyway.

My response: It's about time. The eight-year-old system, with its rainbow of five colors -- from low-threat green to severe-threat to red -- has never fallen below yellow and has hovered at orange for the past four years. Yet you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who tell you how much more alert they should be or how differently they should behave under orange than, say, red. Dump it.

Same with X-rays and pat-downs for pilots. It never made much sense to scan or frisk pilots for the weapons that presumably would be used to take control of a plane away from -- who else? -- pilots. Just before Thanksgiving, the TSA announced an end to pat-downs for pilots and flight attendants, too. Again, better late than never.

Besides, I'm not as upset at the idea of having my junk touched as the idea that our security officials apparently are still searching for another "underwear bomber" even though al-Qaida and related terror groups are notorious for trying new tricks.

We already have an example of a suicide bomber in Saudi Arabia who killed himself and injured a Saudi Arabian official in August in Jeddah with an explosive charge concealed in his rectum. Even our X-ray machines, according to reports, don't go there. At least, not yet.

Even an imperfect security system is better than none, but we need to be smart about the realities of what will keep us safe and not just put on a good show.

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