It’s often said that after 9/11, Americans joined Israelis in understanding the harsh everyday realities of this age of terrorism. The current furor over more intrusive airport screenings suggests that isn’t entirely true. Living in a country where only a tiny minority has been personally touched by the terrorist menace, we seem to want our security but to pay no price for it.
Yes, the new “backscatter” scanners being installed at airports across the country raise troubling personal privacy issues. And yes, the required pat downs for those who opt out of the scanning process out of privacy or health concerns are unpleasant and can be offensive.
But think of the outcry if, God forbid, a new “underwear bomber” is more successful than the last one because Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officials failed to adjust procedures to cope with the latest wrinkle in the effort by groups like al Qaeda to terrorize us.
There are two unchanging realities we, as a nation, need to come to grips with: it is impossible to be 100 percent successful in preventing terrorist attacks, and there is no way to provide even a moderate level of security without incurring new costs and new inconveniences.
While we sympathize with embattled TSA officials in Washington and the officers who monitor airport security checkpoints and face public wrath on a daily basis, our cobbled-together homeland security network is far from blameless.
TSA has done a poor job explaining to a nervous public why these new and more intrusive procedures are necessary. Its fumbling response to the resulting furor fosters a troubling impression it may be spending too much time and money preparing to prevent previous methods of terror.
While racial and ethnic profiling is a can of worms we’d all prefer not to open, there is something irrational about a system that subjects all travelers — aged grandmothers and little children, as well as young and middle-aged men with Arabic-sounding names — to equal scrutiny.
Comparisons to Israel’s successful screening regimens are oversimplifications; Israel monitors two major airports, while TSA officials cover hundreds. During the Thanksgiving period alone, some 24 million people are expected to clog U.S. airports. Still, a relatively inexperienced TSA could learn much from Israeli counterparts with a proven track record of keeping air passengers safe. As anybody who has flown to Israel knows, that is not without inconvenience and a degree of intrusion, particularly for Arab travelers.
As Washington seeks to balance personal dignity and national security in preventing terrorism, officials should be aware that we Americans will be patient and understanding as long as we believe security procedures are designed to prevent the next attack, not the last one.