The New Jihadists, the TSA, and Holiday Travelers

The objectors to the Transportation Security Administration's new body scanners and, in the alternative, more intrusive body searches, fall into two categories. There are the libertarians who argue the new approaches are a violation of privacy "rights" and there are the conservatives, like Ann Coulter or Sarah Palin, who have the easy solution: just look for a profile, i.e., Muslim men who look shady or nervous. By their theory everybody else should be left alone. Both theories are out of touch with the reality of jihadist terrorism today.

Why do they think that the TSA is instituting these new procedures? Because its employees clamored to be less popular than they already are? 

The problem is that al-Qaeda has moved beyond its 9/11 appearances and ploys. Most recently, they succeeded in planting bombs on Federal Express planes coming out of Dubai and through England. That is a novel approach for them. Fortunately, the intelligence agencies intercepted the bombs before they landed in synagogues in Chicago. But it was a lesson on the creativity of the terrorists, and their dedication to their crusade.

The jihadists are not stupid (unfortunately) and they know that appearances matter. Surely the TSA is seeking more information from each and every passenger, because jihadists are recruiting men and women who do not fit the profile that the Coulters and Palins of this world are still looking for. 

It was not long ago that Jihad Jane (American Colleen LaRose) was introduced to the world. She was a blonde who, without the head covering, looked like the Colorado woman she is. She was converted to jihadism and committed to carrying out the terrorists' deadly plans and no one looking at her, even with the head covering, would have guessed she was dedicated to ending western civilization through violent means. To achieve their grandiose plans, they need a tremendous amount of cover, so they are seeking converts in all locations. Muslim extremists have been busy recruiting new jihadists in American prisons for years now, with special attention to the men and women who don't look the terrorist part. 

Those complaining about an invasion of privacy from the new screening approaches have a point, but it will not and should not get them what they want: an end to intrusive screenings. Instead, privacy procedures need to be built-in to the body scanning experience.

The body scanners are the least physically intrusive between the two options now on the table, and should be subject to federal laws that require the utmost confidentiality. 

Congress needs to take this up as soon as possible and enact laws to protect privacy while serving the nation's security needs. The body scanner's screen should only be visible to the TSA employee who is responsible for viewing passengers, and certainly should not be visible to any other members of the public. There should be absolute privacy and confidentiality attached to any screening, with clear guidelines on how the screening is viewed and how or whether images are stored. Finally, the release of any image to law enforcement should be permitted only if there is probable cause. No one else gets access, period. 

If these guarantees were attached to the screenings, the vast majority of travelers could relax and would be able to avoid the physical pat-down. 

There will still be individual travelers who create specific challenges for the TSA, and it should be instructed by Congress to put together regulations for the disabled and for anyone who cannot go through the body scan for medical or other legitimate reasons. There also need to be appropriate procedures for children. These challenges, though, do not prove that more intense screening is a mistake.

There is another reason the TSA is stepping up security now -- jihadists would love to attack when the death toll is large. When better than this busy holiday season?

While I understand some of the concern (but not the hysteria) about the full-body scans, I think Americans are living in a dream world if they think these stepped-up procedures are unnecessary. The jihadists are determined to destroy our civilization and replace it with their barbaric ways. They will use anyone and any path to serve their ends. So far, Americans' response to this new level of security is basically narcissistic -- don't annoy me while I travel. But that is in part due to the failure of this Administration to put the issues in perspective and the silly suggestions being aired by the likes of Palin and Coulter, neither of whom appears to have any idea just how cunning our enemies are.

11/24/2010 5:00:00 AM
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  • Marci Hamilton
    About Marci Hamilton
    Marci A. Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University and author of Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children (Cambridge, 2008) and God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge, 2005, 2007).