Full Body Scanners

“What do you have against technology?” was the question my brother posed after the TSA agent finished patting me down on Thursday. I had opted out of the full body scan. I glibly responded “everything,” but my answer isn’t actually true. I have a problem with the TSA full body scans on a few levels–invasion of privacy and all that–but, mostly, it seems like a bit of technology for the sake of technology, a doohicky to make people feel safer rather than be safer. Besides, if you do the pat down, you don’t even go through the metal detector.

TSA security is about quickly, at least in relative terms, [1] doing a basic screening of large numbers of people to make sure that guns, machetes, explosives, sword-canes, hatchets, and other bladed objects do not make it onto the plane or into the gate area. [2] Just like any quality assurance system in an assembly line, most mistakes are caught, but, then, most people trying to get on the plane don’t need to carry weapons on board. And while there are probably studies, at least internally at the TSA, that show that full body scans provide such-and-such benefit over the metal detectors when it comes to fishing out terror, [3] but numbers can be made to show just about anything. I am unmoved by the standard explanation that the scan is perfectly safe [4] because I am not opting out because the machines an insufficiently tested. I am doing so because I consider it technology for its own sake, the latest in the long line of forms and machines created in a bureaucratic society to justify the existence of the bureaucracy. [5] At the same time, so many of the machines are meant to organize and enable an overcrowded world moving at breakneck speed.

I want to fly and I am sympathetic to the need for airport security; after all, I know exactly where I was when I saw the second plane fly into the world trade center in New York. But I am going to opt out of using this bit of technology until provided a compelling reason for its existence. Thus far I have not be provided one.

[1] One must recall that the quickness and efficiency of bureaucracy is not about quickness on an individual level, but in bulk.
[2] These days there is probably a greater threat to the airline personnel delivering the news about delayed flights than there is to other passengers or the airplane crew.
[3] Literally. I am hard pressed to argue, but they aren’t referring to the emotion.
[4] The agents assumed I knew the speech they are supposed to give me about the safety of the device and never completed it. I had actually not heard this speech about the ways in which the device is safe, but implied that I had heard it all before and they spared me.
[5] I am reminded of the opening “miracle of life” scene in Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life” where the doctors make a point to request “the most expensive machine – in case the Administrator comes.” Of course the administrator arrives and says: “Ah, I see you have the machine that goes ‘ping!’. This is my favorite. “

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