Since pressure from the U.S. last year led airports in Europe and other parts of the world to try out full-body scanners, airports from Paris to Chicago have started to install the contraptions. But recently the debate over privacy took an unexpected religious turn: Both Muslims and Pope Benedict XVI have made proclamations against them.
The pope told an audience of airline workers and executives in late February that he understood the competing problems in their industry of terrorism and economics, but "it is essential," he said, "never to lose sight of respect for the primacy of the person."
A libertarian pope? It's easy to forget that the Catholic Church holds a measure of personal freedom to be a fundamental value, but every now and then you see these instances of the Old World lecturing the New on principles of individualism. "The primary asset to be safeguarded and treasured," Benedict reminded people working at the front lines of the war on terrorism, and by extension U.S. officials, "is the person, in his or her integrity."
The Muslim response was not aimed at people who might run the machines so much as people who might pass through them. An assemblage of Islamic scholars called the Fiqh Council of North America has issued a fatwa against standing in body scanners at all. "It is a violation of clear Islamic teachings that men or women be seen naked by other men and women," the fatwa says. "Islam highly emphasizes haya (modesty) and considers it part of faith. The Quran has commanded the believers, both men and women, to cover their private parts."
The fatwa is logical from a religious point of view, but it will provide easy cover for an Islamist hoping to board a plane with explosives. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who removed most American bureaucratic scruples against the body scanners last December by allegedly trying to blow up a Detroit-bound flight, didn't have to walk through a single scanner. Faced with a choice, he might have opted for a security pat-down.
Let's assume that happened: Let's imagine Abdulmutallab at Schiphol Airport, in Amsterdam, opting for the pat-down line instead of chancing the body scanner. It would have been a gamble, since experts don't believe a scanner would have necessarily caught the PETN powder sewn into his undershorts. But even the most professional pat-down, to be successful, would have involved an uncomfortable grope around his crotch.
Would the U.S. have been safer afterwards? Everything would have depended on personnel. "For a pat search to be truly effective," claims one security expert with a bias toward body scanners, "it needs to border on assault." We can assume that not every security agent in every airport in the world with flights bound for America will submit every Muslim — particularly women in hijab - to such a body search.
Abdulmutallab, in other words, might have slipped through either way. Given the new fatwa, the U.S. government initiative to demand full-body scanners in foreign airports to protect U.S.-bound flights will almost certainly funnel most Muslim passengers away from the scanners. And in the pat-down lines, officials will either "border on assault," or find nothing.
That may sound safe to some people; to me it sounds absurd. I've stood in a body scanner at the Israeli border, and I found it humiliating enough: the isolation in the tube-shaped closet, the raised arms, the inherent mystery over what some unseen security officer might be able to see.
Beyond the creepiness, though, scanners are expensive to buy and maintain; selling more of them will enrich people who have argued for their widespread use, like former Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff; they currently violate British child-porn laws; and, of course, they wouldn't necessarily have revealed Abdulmutallab's explosive package in the first place.
There's a limit to sensible airline security, like the pope said — a point where it begins to violate the values we want to protect. The sweaty and insufficient planning behind Abdulmutallab's hard-to-ignite underpants bomb suggests that the security regime in place before last December was pretty good. The real security gap in his case involved intelligence — a matter of passing along information that was actually offered by his father — which is a problem scanners all over the world will certainly fail to solve.
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