Debate Forum Left 11/17/10

Ineffectiveness of Invasive Pat-Down

By Rana Odeh

Rana Odeh

Once upon a time, U.S. airports were content with metal detectors until the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) deemed them incompetent, so they are being replaced with body scanners. Americans are complaining about the body scanners, so U.S. airports are implementing pat-down security measures. Americans are now complaining about the pat-downs, so where do we go from here?

I do not think the TSA could go any further than using X-ray technology and intimate pat-downs to make our airports safer. The problem is figuring out how to deal with the invasion of privacy. You are given two options; you can either choose to display your nude image on a screen that is viewed by a security official, or you can choose to get felt up by a security official. It does not sound like we have much of an option here.

My dilemma, however, lies in the fact that metal detectors have proven to be incompetent and I think our security is of prime importance. In 2006, Congress requested the testing of metal detectors in U.S. airports and found that federal investigators were able to carry a combination of explosive materials that are strong enough to destruct an airplane without setting off any alarms in 21 U.S. airports across the nation.

The test was not conducted once or twice, but multiple times, and security at the time was unable to detect any threat. The Office of Inspection frequently conducts tests to determine the vulnerability of metal detectors and security officials at airports.

While I am a strong supporter for strict airport security, the exposure to X-rays from the body scanners could be harmful to frequent flyers and the only other option, the pat-downs, are not fool-proof. With the human involvement of pat-downs, I would weigh out their effectiveness vs. the invasion of privacy they may create.

In Tampa, Florida, a middle-aged white male, who works for the Office of Inspection, hid a mock bomb in between the small of his back and his jeans. The man set off the alarm, but not because of his nonmetal bomb, but because of his metal knee, so the security official ran a wand over the man’s body and softly patted him down, including a patting of his back. When the wand set an alarm, the covert tester explained that he has a bad knee and a bum back and was then allowed through into the airport. This man was now free to roam around the airport and board his flight with a mock bomb in his pants.

This raises very important questions about the vulnerability of the security officials, the effectiveness of pat-downs, and the security officials’ bias or judgment on who can pass with a simple explanation after setting off an alarm. After considering the importance of human faultiness, training procedures for security officials, and widespread ideologies, the pat-downs prove to be faulty and perhaps not worth the discomfort they create.

While I understand the body scanners and personal pat-downs may be uncomfortable or an invasion of privacy, I question why people are suddenly so reluctant to help the security situation of our nation. Our privacy went out of the window with the Patriot Act anyway and I believe there should be a unified willingness to support our safety regardless of our own privacy issues.

I am not concerned with the pat-downs because of their invasiveness, rather because of their human bias-led ineffectiveness. I am greatly troubled by the fact that a middle-aged white man can pass into our airports with a mock bomb because he does not fit the racial profiling of a suspicious person.

My concern is that the average American that is complaining about the pat-downs is complaining because he/she does not feel like they deserve to be inspected so closely, or think they are entitled to pass because they do not fit the suspicious racial profiling either. The people who complain about the pat-downs are the same people who are afraid of terrorism and want tight security … just not security measures that affect them.

It seems that they may be the same people who prefer racial profiling as a security measure and would be totally content with a sign directing certain racial groups to the pat-down area. They want “others” to be closely monitored, thoroughly checked and patted down, but they are offended that they, too, are subject to strict security procedures.

People are bringing into question human rights issues with the scanners and pat-downs, but I think there should be human rights questions regarding the biases and unequal treatment that are embedded in the question of security. If some people are getting patted down (and we know one racial group has been and will continue to get patted down),  then every passenger should have to pick between a body scanner and pat-down until different, hopefully more effective and healthy, security measures are implemented.

Rana Odeh is a graduate of the University of Dayton with a degree in English and Philosophy.  Her research and writings focus on issues of race, class and gender.  She can be reached at

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