Don't X-Ray My Junk

Don't X-Ray My Junk

I seem to have been born without any modesty to speak of, so I don't have strong feelings about being peeked at by x-ray in an airport. I'm less thrilled about physical contact from strangers; the number of people in the world I'll willingly hug is surprisingly small, and I don't encourage casual physical contact as a rule. Add to that my visceral aversion to any governmental agent's casual demand for an intrusion, and I start to get positively rebellious. Still, if I think there's a good reason for an inspection, I'll stand with the inspectors as against the eelbrains who'd like to bring down a commercial jet.

I draw the line when I see the intrusions imposed by people with the same mindset that brings us zero-tolerance policies in public schools. We could do with fewer policies designed to trade one risk for another without thinking through either of them. Anti-CO2 policies are a good example: only a paralysis of the critical faculties permits climate alarmists to conclude that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere pose a greater risk than the probable results of their proposed solutions. Another good example is the use of backscatter x-rays at airports.

Setting aside for a moment the more intangible risks of letting TSA officials condition American travelers to act like sheep, there's the question of whether the increased chance of preventing an air disaster is even worth the excess radiation from the backscatter x-ray machine. Yes, the x-ray dose is extremely small -- but so are the doses from medical diagnostic x-rays, and we're pretty stingy about those. An ordinary x-ray of the chest or teeth might expose you to something like 8-10 mrem. A dose of 1,250 mrem probably increases your risk of cancer by 1 in a 1,000 (the background risk being about 200 in 1,000). The dose from an airport backscatter x-ray machine is so small that you'd have to be scanned about 200 times a year to get an annual dose of 1 mrem.

That's pretty small. But how does it compare to the risk of dying in a terrorist attack on a commercial jet? This site puts it at 1 in 10,400,000, which may be roughly comparable to the risk of a single mrem of x-ray exposure (using the over-simplistic method of multiplying 1 in 1,000 by 1 in 1,250). Not that the figure of 1 in 10,400,000 means much, since probability estimates based on largely unknown future mechanisms are mostly hot air. The point is that it's not possible to make life risk-free, and it's not often even that easy to compare the risks of forbearance against those of vigorous intervention. The whole approach strikes me as wrong-headed, anyway. Why is it OK to intrude more and more into the physical privacy of airline passengers with every passing year, but we still can't profile for fear of arousing resentment in exactly the sociodemographic groups we're most threatened by? Israel's experience with ElAl shows how effective a rational approach to passenger screening can be if it relies on social clues and behavioral patterns rather than the equivalent of universal cavity searches.

I confess I'd like to see Americans stand up for themselves. Ceding to the federal government the right to do anything it takes in order to push perceived risks to an unattainable zero level is risky in itself. I'm not ready to advocate a total boycott of the airlines or even mass civil disobedience in the scanner lines. Ridicule may be a more appropriate first level of resistance. I'd like to see passengers carry extra one-dollar bills, and tuck them into the belts of the TSA employees after the physical and/or electronic groping sessions are completed.

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