TSA Outrage: Would You Rather Get Screened or Blown Up?

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I haven’t actually been to an airport since the new Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screening policies were rolled out. But it still seems pretty clear to me that the public’s fear and outrage over airport “strip-search” scanners is a tad overwrought.

It wouldn’t be a total oversimplification to boil the issue down to a single question: would you rather get screened or blown up? The new TSA whole-body scanning machines are designed to catch potentially deadly threats — like, say, explosive chemicals in underwear — that metal detectors miss. The end result should be a safer flight. It’s a no-brainer. (More on Time.com: Should We Worry About Radiation Exposure From New Airport Scanners?)

Critics of the strip-search scanners condemn them for issues of privacy, because they produce a fairly accurate likeness of people’s naked bodies. So they volunteer for the TSA pat-down instead. But if your beef is about privacy, why would you opt out of an anonymous 10-sec. scan — the only person looking at your image does so from a separate room and doesn’t see your face or the details of your private parts (they’re blurred) — for an invasive four-minute pat-down by a guy looking you right in the eye?

Some people are worried about the excess radiation they’ll absorb by stepping through the scanner — never mind that it’s less than the amount of cosmic radiation you’ll be bombarded with during two minutes of flight. (To be fair, experts disagree on exactly how much radiation is emitted by the imaging technology, but they tend to agree it’s low.) (More on Time.com: Bird Flu Pops Up Again in Hong Kong. Is a Pandemic on Its Way?

The real issue is that it’s been nine years since 9/11, and people have forgotten the true threat that these security measures are designed to avoid. We are less afraid of the risk of an exploding plane, and more afraid of the relatively insignificant risks of the new TSA screens, says David Ropeik, author of How Risky Is It, Really? Hence, all the fuss.

Ropeik blogs over at PsychologyToday.com that no one made much of a stink when the TSA installed its “shoes off” screening policy in 2002; that happened after shoe-bomber Richard Reid tried to ignite his sneakers and blow up a plane — only 15 months after 9/11. (More on Time.com: Gulf Seafood Is Safe to Eat, FDA and NOAA Say)

Ropeik notes also that the threat of terrorism was still fresh in our minds in 2006, “when more than 20 Islamic radicals were arrested before they could board several planes with benign liquids and mix them into bombs midflight. With some grousing, we gave up carrying large containers of liquids in our carry-on luggage.”

We’ve come this close several times since 9/11, Ropeik argues — the “underwear bomber” incident happened just last Christmas — but precisely because such terrorist attempts have been thwarted, the real threat of a deadly in-flight disaster has receded in the public mind. So the lesser threat of increasingly thorough security measures at airports — and I grant that being forced to endure a “naked” screen shot or a TSA “grope” is by no means pleasant or dignified (and certainly more invasive than being asked to take your shoes off) — just seems egregiously unacceptable. (More on Time.com: United’s Travel Technology Excludes the Blind, Lawsuit Alleges)

Ropeik writes:

Most risks involve tradeoffs of some sort. In this case it’s a risk-risk tradeoff, between getting blown up on the one hand and feeling coerced into having your privacy invaded while being exposed to minute doses of radiation on the other. If Risk 1 — getting blown up — doesn’t feel like a real possibility, you’re less willing to live with Risk 2. If the negative qualities of Risk 2 — radiation, coercion, invasion of privacy — feel bigger, Risk 2 will matter more than Risk 1.

It all adds up to a kind of a silly way to think about how to protect ourselves from the constant and real threat of bad guys and bombs on planes. But then, risk perception isn’t just about thinking. It’s about feeling too. And in this case, what feels right…resisting a procedure that could keep us safer…may actually make things worse.

And, by the way, if you’re thinking of participating in National Opt-Out Day on Wednesday — a movement to encourage mass scanner opt-outs and to create airport security line backlogs on the day before Thanksgiving — you might want to reconsider. For another cogent argument as to why, read William Saletan’s take on Slate.