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The Politics of a European Pat-Down

Airport security in Europe tends to be more discreet than in the U.S. But an industry group wants to change that.

The level of panic this winter over the snow — of all things — that snarled European and American travel plans obscured another story about invasive pat-downs at European airports. Briefly, it goes like this: Travelers in Europe didn't have to suffer them.

That should seem strange. Washington has used visa-free travel agreements to foist other security restrictions on its European allies, from electronic passports to body scanners. But so far there have been almost no American-style complaints in Europe about "enhanced pat-downs," even at major European hubs like Schiphol, Frankfurt or Heathrow airports.

"A pat-down in Europe is quite discreet," Emmanuel Vincart, a spokesman for Belgium's Data Protection Authority recently told the Global Post. "[Screeners] would never touch your genitals!"

An American aviation expert named Todd Curtis said the reasons were political. He told the Global Post that, since any given government can order a certain level of security, a downed airliner in Europe "would not be a political disaster" to the degree it would be in the United States.

So the Europeans enforce a policy "more compatible with a risk-management approach that accepts that these kinds of threats can be reduced and controlled, but not eliminated." Washington, on the other hand, has tightened TSA's screening policy in an attempt "to stop 100 percent of the attacks 100 percent of the time," he said.

EUROPEAN DISPATCHMichael Scott Moore complements his standing feature in Miller-McCune magazine with frequent posts on the policy challenges and solutions popping up on the other side of the pond.

Michael Scott Moore complements his standing feature in Miller-McCune magazine with frequent posts on the policy challenges and solutions popping up on the other side of the pond.

But it can't — at least not as long as Europeans aren't using "enhanced pat-downs" on U.S.-bound flights. The man who panicked America's security regime into its rigorous new measures was Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called underwear bomber who tried, but failed, to set off explosives in his underwear on a Detroit-bound plane in late 2009. He flew in from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport.

That means the freest nation on Earth has more uniformed guards doing more unacceptable things to more travelers trying to board overseas flights — including, in one case, the unfortunate treatment of a rape victim — while our European allies abstain, thereby making a mockery of the whole American program.

The most recent European debate over airline security is no more promising, though. An airline industry group recommended outright Israeli-style profiling of air passengers.  Giovanni Bisignani, head of the International Air Transport Association, suggested in mid-December that airports around the world should segregate customers into three categories, based on data collected either previously or during an interview when they check in.

One category would be a swift and relatively painless "Known Traveler Lane," for frequent flyers with clean profiles. Another would be a "Normal Security Lane." The last would be an "Enhanced Security Lane" for travelers who need extra inspection — based perhaps on their choice of in-flight meal, nervous behavior at check-in, or maybe a recent trip to some Islamic country (all criteria used by Israel).

This "airport profiling" system resembles what Michael Chertoff had in mind in Berlin two and a half years ago when he sketched his dream of "a worldwide system of tripwires," set off by personal data, "that make it easy for the vast amount of travelers to move along unimpeded but that make it dangerous and difficult for terrorists to do the same thing."

Of course it's easy to imagine a patient would-be terrorist spending years amassing a clean airport profile and then cruising through the Known Traveler Lane with, say, an underwear bomb.

But more immediate arguments will almost certainly kill the idea of airport profiling in Europe. In Germany, the proposal was rejected by most relevant officials during the last half of December.

"Such a procedure would amount to a permanent dragnet," said Peter Schaar, the nation's federal privacy commissioner, to the Rheinische Post newspaper late in the month. "There's no basis for that in German law."