If you want total security, go to prison. There you're fed, clothed, given medical care and so on. The only thing lacking... is freedom. — Dwight D. Eisenhower
In the 1960s, U.S. planes routinely were hijacked to Cuba. Thirty-five planes departing from U.S. airports were diverted to Havana during 1969 alone. The hijackers ranged from disgruntled expatriates, terrorists, extortionists, asylum seekers, the mentally ill and at least one college student who hijacked a plane on a lark.
The funny thing is, some U.S. airline passengers openly hoped their planes would be hijacked. They thought it would be a grand adventure.
Wanting to be hijacked — not to mention open airports with no security procedures — seems quaint in this era of global terrorism. It also provides a good measure of the freedom and convenience we have sacrificed in the name of security.
U.S. airports began installing metal detectors in 1973, largely in response to the hijacking threat, and frequent fliers are all too familiar with the evolution of security measures since. After 9/11, the modern age of airport security began, and the idea of simply buying a ticket and boarding a plane was ancient history.
Now passengers must show proper ID, remove their shoes for inspectors, have their take-on luggage electronically scanned and limit the size of the shampoo bottles they carry on board to three ounces or less. Some passengers are subjected to a full pat-down by security personnel.
Most of us probably would agree that this is a reasonable tradeoff for reducing the risk of sharing coach with a terrorist. While we might be skeptical that removing our shoes before boarding and carrying teeny shampoo bottles really makes us safer, most of us are willing to go along with the required protocols.
But the narrowly averted attempt to set off a bomb aboard a flight to Detroit on Christmas Day has sparked calls for heightened security measures, including full-body scanners at airports nationwide.
The scanners, also referred to as a "digital strip search," use two technologies, millimeter wave sensors or backscatter X-rays.
What both have in common is that they render images of passengers as if they were completely nude. They're like the ubiquitous X-ray glasses sold in the back of comic books, except they really work.
While the images make passengers appear something like glowing space aliens, they still leave little to the imagination.
Some have complained that the scanners constitute an unacceptable invasion of privacy. How long would it be before images of buck-naked passengers start showing up on the Internet?
Other critics say the scanners are just the latest expensive geegaw (they cost about $150,000 apiece) that won't make us any safer. For example, they can't detect explosives that have been swallowed or hidden in body cavities.
But passengers might accept even a device as intrusive as this if they think it actually will reduce the risk of a terrorist bombing. The more important question, however, might be this: Where do we draw the line?
It is interesting that the politicians who rail most against the nanny state and the inability of government to do anything right often are among those demanding that the government provide absolute security for airline passengers. The same people who say the government can't operate a postal service correctly insist that the same government ensure that no terrorist will ever make it on board an American airplane — ever.
But how much security can we really stand?
We're asked to arrive at the airport an hour before our scheduled flight. What if we were asked to arrive three hours early to submit to a more rigorous security check?
Many people would be OK with that — at least for the time being, while thoughts of the "underwear bomber" are fresh in our minds. But how many business travelers, who often fly several times a week, would take the two-hour flight from Charlotte to Washington if it entailed a three-hour wait and a trip through a full-body scanner at both ends? And how long would the airlines remain solvent without business travelers? Do we really want to be bailing out the airline industry in a few years?
We are focused right now on the terrorist threat to air travel. But what happens if terrorists attack the subway system in a major American city, as they did in London? Would passengers be required to go through a security check on their way to work? It would bring commerce in a city such as New York to a standstill.
What if the terrorists strike at a major college sporting event? Would fans then be willing to arrive at stadiums three or four hours early and submit to an extensive security check?
Some already have called for throwing out the Constitution when it comes to terrorist suspects. They question why Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the suspected bomber on the Detroit flight, should be read his rights and tried in a U.S. civilian court. Why not treat him like an enemy combatant with no constitutional rights?
Welcome to the neo-McCarthy era, where terrorists lurk under every bed and a presumption of guilt is enough to get you thrown in a dungeon.
Most of us are willing to accept some level of mass security if we think it will make us safer. The problem is, if we aren't careful, we can sacrifice our freedom of movement, our privacy, our civil rights and our convenience to the point that we have made ourselves prisoners in our own country.
And when that happens, the terrorists have won.
ABOUT THE WRITER
James Werrell is the Rock Hill Herald opinion page editor and can be reached by e-mail, at email@example.com.