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The Independent Institute
Commentary

Government Sexual Molestation in Airports Is ‘Over the Top’


After the initial hysterical security response to the 9/11 attacks—inane measures included posting 19-year-old National Guardsmen with automatic weapons at crowded airports and the temporary discontinuation of electronic tickets—lasting security augmentation entailed hardening of aircraft cockpit doors and beefing up passenger screening in airports. The latter has continued after each subsequent foiled terrorist plot and has now reached absurd proportions.

After the failure of the shoe bomber, we were required to begin disrobing when going through airport security. After the thwarted attempt to assemble a liquid bomb on an aircraft, we were limited to three ounces of liquid per bottle. After the underwear bomber, we began being subjected to pornographic scans of our bodies, which showed genitals, breasts, etc.

And after the latest attempt to put bombs in airplane cargo compartments, we are now subjected to sexual molestation and assault if anyone but the government did it—that is, aggressive pat-downs by airport security personnel that include actually touching those genitals and breasts.

The public, sold on the irrational post-9/11 dread of being killed by a terrorist (the actual chance of the average American being killed by an international terrorist is a minuscule one in 80,000), has grumbled and tolerated most of these “security” augmentations. Yet outrageous fondling by government employees has caused a rising tide of public outrage and may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

For example, the Washington Post quoted one traveler, Marc Moniz of Poway, Calif., as complaining about such molestation, “It’s very intrusive and very insane. I wouldn’t let anyone touch my daughter like that. We’re not common criminals.”

And the government has no probable cause to believe all travelers are criminal terrorists, making any airport security measures that search every traveler violate the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. That amendment requires the government to have probable cause that a crime has been committed before a search is conducted.

Also, the aforementioned piling on of security procedures after each stymied attack should raise questions about the latest unconstitutional fad. After all, each attack was foiled prior to the institution of the added security measure, and the government is always guarding against yesterday’s threat, as the nimble terrorists try to outmaneuver huge and ponderous government bureaucracies. In fact, government officials often institute security measures merely to “reassure the public”—read: pretend to be doing something about a perceived problem.

But the government response to the recent attempt at cargo bombing should cause the public to be even more suspicious of government actions. After all, what do aggressive pat-downs of passengers have to do with the threat of bombs being put in cargo compartments? The government is using the time-honored bureaucratic tradition of using a crisis to get public acceptance for some unrelated governmental policy preference—remember the invasion of Iraq after the 9/11 attacks? Moreover, these new aggressive pat-downs are more helpful in uncovering knives and other hand-held weapons of lesser threat than they are of detecting chemical explosives.

Another bizarre security addition that I have recently experienced is the plastic cage. Last week I was flying and was randomly selected for the dreaded “secondary screening” (it sounds ancillary but is just annoying). The security woman put me in the cage (fortunately it had air holes), locked it, and told me that I wasn’t getting out until she swabbed my hands (presumably for potential chemical residues from bomb making).

To show how much overkill the government has perpetrated on the traveling public in passenger security lines, let’s do a thought experiment. After 9/11, even if the government had instituted no added security measures, flying would have been much safer. Why? Because previously, passengers and crews were instructed to cooperate with any aircraft hijacker because most people on the plane usually lived through such experiences. During and after the 9/11 attacks, however, this paradigm changed abruptly as air travelers became surly when envisioning everyone dying and also killing people on the ground. Such enraged travelers likely foiled the attack with the fourth plane on 9/11, and passengers or crew did not sit idly by during the shoe and underwear bombing attempts.

Thus, with now vigilant and aggressive travelers as the first line of defense, intrusive government passenger screening—previously annoying and now dehumanizing—is hardly vital for air security.


Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.


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