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Don't touch my junk? Grow up, America.

By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, November 24, 2010;

My family, as it happens, is taking the bus to Grandma's this Thanksgiving. But our choice of transportation has nothing to do with anxiety about leering security screeners or fear of pat-downs.

The uproar over the new procedures is overblown and immature. The marginal invasion of privacy is small relative to the potential benefit of averting a terrorist attack. Meanwhile, some of the loudest howls of outrage emanate from those who would be quickest to blame the Obama administration for not doing enough to protect us if a bomber did slip through.

Granted, the images from the souped-up screeners are uncomfortably graphic. But where is the harm if some guy in another room, who doesn't have a clue who I am and doesn't see my face (it's obscured on the machine), gets a look at my flabby middle-aged self? The images are automatically deleted once the screening is completed. It's the old philosophical riddle: If your butt sags in the forest . . .

By contrast, the pat-down is actually intrusive, no question about it. But you most likely won't have to endure it unless you balk at the enhanced imaging. If you do, the pat-down will be conducted by a screener of the same gender. If you want, it can be done in a private area.

"Don't touch my junk" may be the cri de coeur - cri de crotch? - of the post-9/11 world, but it's an awfully childish one. We let people touch our junk all the time in medical settings. Yes, the technician who performs my mammogram has more professional training than your average TSA agent, but she is also a lot more up close and personal than a quick once-over with a gloved hand. I undergo the mammogram for my personal benefit; I don't know if there is a suspicious mass, whereas I know there are no explosives sewn into my underwear. I undergo the pat-down, if I must, for the greater public benefit. It is an unfortunate part of the modern social contract.

Of course, aspects of the screening culture are comically idiotic. When my 13-year-old daughter and I went through a checkpoint a few weeks ago, she was told to take off her hoodie; I waltzed through with my cardigan on. Absurd, certainly, but hardly a big deal. It may be silly to make Grandma take off her shoes, but it is hardly a huge imposition.

And there will, no doubt, be circumstances where screeners go too far and will have to be reined in. The breast cancer survivor asked to show her prosthesis; the bladder cancer survivor whose bag full of urine burst - these are unacceptable. Effective screening does not require a complete suspension of common sense.

My defense of the new procedures assumes that there is some rational basis for the screening madness: that the techniques work and that there is not a less intrusive alternative.

On the first, whether this is real security or security theater is to some extent unknowable; the plot deterred cannot be measured. We do know that, without the enhanced imaging, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab got on a plane with enough explosives to blow it up.

The new screening might not catch every would-be bomber - is the next, resourceful step hiding explosives in body cavities? - but that does not mean it is not useful in the interim. And, no, the decision to engage in exterior pat-downs does not presage interior cavity searches. The slope is not so slippery.

Let's also leave aside any questions of constitutionality or fundamental fairness about terrorist profiling and simply consider whether it could be done effectively. The Israeli approach is an alluring mirage that would not withstand transplantation. Israel has two airports and 50 flights a day. It conducts intrusive background checks and questions passengers extensively. The process can take hours.

Profiling based on assumptions - that innocent-looking grannies or blond, blue-eyed teens pose no threat - seems guaranteed to produce disaster as terrorists exploit these preconceptions. At which point, the fingers will be pointed at government officials who were not intrusive enough.

The stepped-up screening has generated a fascinating fusion of left-right outrage. Bloggers at the liberal Firedoglake inveigh against "gate rape" and "porno scanners." Rush Limbaugh denounces "Obama-led government agents . . . acting like perverts" and advises, "Keep your hands off my tea bag, Mr. President."

The polls suggest that the American people, a large segment anyway, have a more sensible attitude. For that, at least, we can give thanks.

ruthmarcus@washpost.com

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