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Editorial | Our View

TSA methods worth the hassle


Some loud objections are being heard to what are described as intrusive body imaging machines or, in the alternative, full-body pat-downs at airport checkpoints. Nobody is welcoming the new method with open arms, but travelers must keep in mind that these security methods are aimed at trying to keep terrorists from entering planes with explosive materials.

Some people are vowing to drive long distances by car rather than fly. That, unfortunately, is not an option for Hawaii residents or tourists wanting to fly to or from the mainland. Here, they will be forced to either stay at home or go through the security process. Alarmist arguments that the process violates the constitutional protection against unreasonable searches are off-base because of new levels of terrorist threats.

The issue spiked when a software engineer reached YouTube fame last weekend with an audio at the San Diego airport after turning down the full-body scan, then refusing the pat-down, telling a transportation security officer, "If you touch my junk, I’m gonna have your arrested."

The scans are not as intrusive as many seem to imagine. Now picked at random, passengers are told to stand in what look like huge refrigerators and subject themselves to X-ray-like radiation. A computer-generated image of the passenger’s body, without the face, is reviewed by a screener who is in a different location and does not know the traveler’s identity. The Transportation Security Administration says images are blocked from being saved or stored — quite unlike a Florida courthouse scanner case that has fueled reports to the contrary.

Airline pilots have expressed concern about subjecting themselves to the radiation numerous times day after day. However, the government says the radiation is so slight that 5,000 trips through the scanner would be the equivalent of a single chest X-ray. Complete information about the radiation should be made available to passengers with medical concerns.

"From a strictly radiation-safety standpoint, there would be no concern," said Richard Morin, a Mayo Clinic radiology specialist.

The Food and Drug Administration has estimated that the risk of fatal cancer from the maximum allowable dose would be 1 in 80 million per screening, compared with 1 in 1 million for the chance of dying in a car driven 40 miles.

The hands-on body search is allowed as an opt-out alternative, or after the scan has shown something suspicious.

The advance to the new scanning machines is welcome because metal detectors were unable to spot plastic or chemical bombs now being used by terrorists. And even as this debate simmers, new less-intrusive scanning technology is being tested.

But for now: This new level of inconvenience for most is, for some, a questionable invasion of privacy. Congress and oversight agencies do need to watch vigilantly that fine line between privacy issues and public safety, even as the focus remains fixed on terrorism. But the government, however clumsy, is not the enemy here; terrorists who would kill are.

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