Flight Risk

Because of our reluctance to take a more commonsense approach to airport screening, fliers now have two choices: groping of their privates by the TSA, or exposure to full-body X-ray scanners that not only amount to a visual strip-search, but also subject passengers (especially those who fly often) to worrisome levels of radiation. We have been reassured that the scanners pose no more radiation risk than, say, cosmic-ray exposure during flight, but in a letter to White House science czar John Holdren, a group of experts from UCSF explain that the hazard is far greater than we are led to believe.

The reason is that these scanners employ a type of radiation that is designed not to penetrate deeply into the body, but rather to be scattered by the skin. This means that, in contrast to cosmic rays, whose effects are distributed throughout the body’s volume, the radiation dosage at the surface of the body is “orders of magnitude” higher. For example, melanocytes in the skin — that’s where melanoma develops — appear to be getting a good blast from these devices.

Here’s the letter.

(Hat tip: Dennis Mangan.)


  1. Dom says

    I wonder why the usual gang of civil right’s lawyers aren’t concerned about this. Even Arizona’s law is said to be a violation of our fourth amendment rights. But the TSA procedure is not.

    Posted November 23, 2010 at 9:22 am | Permalink
  2. JK says

    I’ve a few questions myself (and it appears I’m headed to the research department) – didn’t the Army change “it’s mind” about a weapon deployment due to ‘radiation concerns’?

    Gee, I hope I saved that pdf where I can find it.

    Posted November 23, 2010 at 10:01 am | Permalink
  3. JK says

    Oops, not a “weapon” – a tool for area denial.

    Posted November 23, 2010 at 10:03 am | Permalink
  4. the one eyed man says

    I can’t speak to the radiation issue, but I have been completely mystified by the brouhaha over TSA scanning procedures. I have no problem with either procedure, and would find them vastly preferable to the risk of flying with an underwear bomber. In my view, the only relevant question is what the best available technology is. If it is a full body scan, then bring them on.

    The TSA is in a lose-lose situation. People will complain about intrusive or annoying searches, but in the event that someone gets a bomb aboard a plane, they will demand to know how and why the TSA let him through. An IRA terrorist once told the London police that they have to be successful 100% of the time, but the terrorist only has to be successful 1% of the time. If body scans plug a gap in airport security, I’m all for it.

    I find myself in the unusual position of being in agreement with 81% of the American people.


    Posted November 23, 2010 at 7:23 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Well, the scanners will still miss threats that are carried “internally”.

    Probably the “best available technology” is a full colonic purge, then a complete body-cavity search, followed by forcing everybody to fly naked and locked in little cages.

    That’ll be next year. Looking forward to seeing it on the trains & buses, too, after somebody hits one of those.

    Somewhere in Waziristan, someone’s having an awfully good laugh.

    Posted November 23, 2010 at 8:37 pm | Permalink
  6. the one eyed man says

    My daughter is in New Jersey and will be flying home in a few days. Given that we live in a world where airplane passengers load explosives in their shoes and underwear, it is important to me that the TSA does whatever is humanly possible to prevent those passengers from boarding the plane.

    Posted November 23, 2010 at 9:01 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    “Whatever is humanly possible” certainly covers quite a range of options.

    Posted November 23, 2010 at 9:32 pm | Permalink
  8. the one eyed man says

    It certainly does. Prudence dictates erring on the side of caution.

    Germany recently warned its citizens of an imminent terrorist attack. A Times article the other day reported on Al Qaeda’s preference for bombs on airline passengers and cargo planes because they get more bang for the buck. Neither you nor I know what intelligence the government has. Let’s say that the government has a strong indication, but not definitive proof, of attempts to put bomb-laded passengers on airplanes during the Thanksgiving holiday. What should it do?

    If it announces the likelihood of an imminent threat, it will disrupt and scare holiday travelers. If the threat does not occur, it will have done so for naught and be accused of crying wolf the next time there is actionable intelligence. It seems to me that, among other things, the most effective approach would be to use body scans and pat downs.

    I think the writer of the article cited above has a valid point: we are a nation of whiners. People who place their personal convenience or fear of embarrassment above the safety of others. Getting scanned or patted down isn’t a big deal. To quote a leading light of the conservative movement: it’s time to man up.

    Posted November 23, 2010 at 10:33 pm | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    Yes, as a nation we’re looking pretty manly: timorous herds lined up meekly to watch our elderly mothers be stripped down and have their privates groped. Oo-rah.

    Posted November 23, 2010 at 11:27 pm | Permalink
  10. the one eyed man says

    1) If you exempt any group of people from scrutiny, you increase the likelihood that they will be the next one to bring a bomb on a plane, either wittingly or unwittingly. You can put a bomb in a baby stroller or with your grandfather with Alzheimer’s. You can have a bomb brought on a plane by someone who is not a terrorist: some people are simply deranged and murderous. You could have someone about to die from a terminal disease who wants to go out with a bang. Maybe he is deeply in debt, wants to take care of his kids, is promised millions of dollars from a terrorist, and figures nobody will ever know. Black swan events do occur, and it would be irresponsible to pretend that they don’t.

    In addition to whatever efficacy body scans have, there is a value in having a visibly aggressive security apparatus. If airport security is visibly lax, it changes the calculation in a terrorist’s mind and increases the likelihood of attack.

    The fact is that terrorism isn’t going to go away, and its asymmetry requires constant vigilance, which cannot be achieved without intrusive and annoying hassles. Nobody likes it, but those who complain about it would be the first to demand how the TSA let a terrorist go through if another plane gets blown up. We’ve avoided a shoe bomber, an underwear bomber, and a cargo plane bomber. Doubtless more bombs are on the way. I really don’t care what safeguards you have to put into place, or who is inconvenienced by those safeguards, to prevent the next bomb from going off.

    2) I think this issue is emblematic of the loss of comity in American life. There have been numerous occasions where we have pulled together as a nation to fight a common threat, whether it was the Depression or the Nazis. We are now so balkanized and fragmented that nobody seems to care about anybody except themselves, and patriotism ceases at personal inconvenience.

    So people howl about a fifteen second pat down even though it makes the plane safer for everyone. Republicans are gung ho about extending tax breaks to millionaires but refuse to help people who are out of work. It’s fine to hassle Hispanics in Arizona, but I’ll be damned if I have to bring my passport when I go to Canada. No health insurance? Good luck with that. We’re not in this together.

    I think a lot of this has to do with the acrimony of political discourse and the eagerness of politicians and some in the media to aggressively push agenda which are useful for them but deleterious to the country. (If these procedures were instituted during the Bush administration, it wouldn’t be the outrage du jour on Fox News. It would be warmly received as an indispensable part of the “war on terror.”) However, much of it also has to do with the fact that we have grown flabby as a nation, and the hysterical reaction to the screening procedures compares disfavorably with, say, the fortitude shown by the British during the Blitz or the Russians during the siege of Leningrad. Or the Americans who bought war bonds, supported the war effort on the home front, or enlisted to fight. We face adversaries just as determined, but can’t bear the thought of going through a flight scan as a small contribution to their hoped-for defeat.

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 8:27 am | Permalink
  11. Malcolm says

    If you exempt any group of people from scrutiny, you increase the likelihood that they will be the next one to bring a bomb on a plane, either wittingly or unwittingly. You can put a bomb in a baby stroller or with your grandfather with Alzheimer’s. You can have a bomb brought on a plane by someone who is not a terrorist: some people are simply deranged and murderous.

    Yes, anything is possible in principle, and “black swan” events do occur. But “black swans” are by definition unforeseeable. So what is the appropriate trade-off here? To what extent are we willing to make travel miserable and humiliating in a futile attempt to achieve 100% safety? To what extent are we willing to debase and degrade ourselves exchanging liberty and dignity for security? It seems you’re willing to draw the line at “whatever is humanly possible”. While we’re at it, why not outlaw left turns, to make driving safer?

    Security threats are a perennial justification for ever-more-intrusive intrusions on privacy and freedom. At the risk of providing an example of Godwin’s Law, I’m sure a great many Germans were willing to put up with “whatever is humanly possible” after the Reichstag fire.

    We’ve avoided a shoe bomber, an underwear bomber, and a cargo plane bomber.

    No, we didn’t. Passenger screenings had zero effect in those cases, and the two jihadis who tried to blow up the planes from their seats were prevented only by the swift action of vigilant passengers (who had presumably waited patiently in line for a manifestly ineffectual security screening).

    I really don’t care what safeguards you have to put into place, or who is inconvenienced by those safeguards, to prevent the next bomb from going off.

    No, apparently not. (Enjoy the colonic irrigations, no doubt coming your way soon.) But if you really don’t care, then how about some intelligent profiling, reflecting the fact that it is in fact a very particular segment of the world’s population that is responsible for this climate of fear?

    What a lot of fatuous comparisons you make in 2). Both providing a passport at an international border and enforcing existing immigration law are obviously rational approaches to national security; I see no cause for any reasonable person to object to either.

    During the Blitz, England was under daily attack by another nation’s air force, the largest in the world. The British government and people were very clear about who the enemy were; it was the Germans. The British were fighting for their lives, alone in their tiny island, against a far stronger adversary, one that their leaders were not afraid to name.

    During the siege of Leningrad, a major city was reduced to rubble by an invading army, using armored divisions and heavy bombers. The citizens who had not already been killed either showed “fortitude”, or died (and most of them died anyway).

    None of this is even remotely comparable to the situation we are in now.

    We face adversaries just as determined, but can’t bear the thought of going through a flight scan as a small contribution to their hoped-for defeat.

    We are not going to “defeat” global jihad by prostrating ourselves in an ever-deepening cycle of tremulous submission, in the sniveling hope that by abasing ourselves in whatever way we can imagine we will avoid the next bloody nose from the neighborhood bully. Our enemies are sitting back, sipping a Slurpee, popping bullets at our feet to see us dance.

    Finally, it would be refreshing if just for once, you could comment on any topic under the sun without launching into a diatribe against American conservatives, and against George Bush, who hasn’t even been in office for two years now. (Speaking of which, given your eagerness to do “whatever is humanly possible” to improve security, I’d have thought you’d have found something nice to say about the USA PATRIOT act.)

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 11:13 am | Permalink
  12. the one eyed man says

    1) You can never achieve 100% safety. However, the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. The fact that you cannot prevent all attacks doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t prevent those which you can prevent. If you don’t screen for bombs, people will bring them on airplanes. It’s that simple. Some of them will hide the devices in their underwear. I see nothing miserable or humiliating about going through a flight scan. It barely rises to the level of being a nuisance. In my view, it is a perfectly reasonable trade-off for increased safety.

    2) I have no problem at all with racial profiling at airports. To the extent that you can develop a predictive model, it ought to be used. Currently about 3% of airline passengers get scanned. I have no issue if a disproportionate number of 20-something men with Arab passports are in that group.

    3) There are plenty of good reasons to oppose the Arizona statute, but I am disinclined to rehash that argument here.

    4) It is false to say that the Nazis and Islamic terrorists are not “remotely comparable.” Both the Nazis and Al Qaeda pose existential threats, given the possibility that the latter could obtain nuclear or biological weapons. Even without these weapons, we all know the consequences of 9/11, and another series of attacks would likely have the same devastating results.

    5) Airplanes exploding in the sky are not comparable to a bloody nose.

    6) Preventing terrorist attacks will not in itself defeat terrorism, but it is a vital component of any effective strategy against terror.

    7) The diatribe wasn’t about George Bush, it was about Fox News. If these procedures were established during his administration, Sean Hannity would be cheering instead of booing.

    8) Re the PATRIOT Act: let me be more precise. We should do everything humanly possible within the limits established by the Constitution. There are no constitutional issues related to airport screening procedures.

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 11:46 am | Permalink
  13. Malcolm says

    1) Just yesterday someone in my office was talking about here 92-year-old mother who, as a melanoma survivor, couldn’t go through the scanner. She was stripped and groped, and reduced to tears. Yes, there’s a balance somewhere — I am not suggesting we abandon all airport security — but we’re not doing a very good job of finding it.

    2) Excellent. I am very glad to hear you say this.

    3) Good choice.

    4) I’m all for preventing jihadis from acquiring, and delivering, nuclear weapons. Pawing at the privates of 92-year-old Christian women at the airport is not, perhaps, the most effective tactic.

    5) Perhaps not. Sniveling before bullies is nothing to be proud of, nevertheless. It wasn’t in Neville Chamberlain’s day, and it isn’t now.

    6) That depends. If by “effective strategy against terror” you mean doing absolutely anything, no matter how debasing, to buy an ever-diminishing measure of safety, then perhaps so.

    7) Perhaps, perhaps not. I couldn’t care less what pop-culture rabble-rousers like Sean Hannity, Keith Olbermann, etc. do.

    8) Hmmm.. seems to me the Fourth Amendment might figure in there someplace…

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 11:52 am | Permalink
  14. the one eyed man says

    I should add that one of the unfortunate consequences of airport screening procedures is that you can no longer travel with weed. I think that sucks. However, being the altruistic individual that I am, I will gladly put love of country above love of weed.

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 11:58 am | Permalink
  15. Malcolm says

    A grateful nation salutes you.

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 12:12 pm | Permalink
  16. the one eyed man says

    The first time I got a digital rectal exam, I told my doctor that he was going where no man had ever gone before. I asked him if his mother knows what he does for a living. I complained that at least he should take me out to dinner first. (I still can’t figure out how he did it. First he put one hand on my left shoulder, then his other hand on my right shoulder. Oh, never mind.) However, I go through it every year to make sure I have a happy prostate. Same thing with flight scans.

    I don’t think there is a Fourth Amendment issue here. There is no constitutional right to privacy (which is why Roe v. Wade was an awful decision.) There are many instances where the public right to safety trumps the right to refuse to be searched: customs lines, metal detectors at sports stadiums and Presidential speeches, holding sensitive government or military positions (because you accept the fact that your phones will be tapped), etc. Same thing here.

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 12:42 pm | Permalink
  17. Malcolm says

    As for your doctor, you can feel safe, knowing he stands behind you. I asked mine how business was, and he said “Looking up!”

    And as for prostate exams and TSA screening, looks like it’ll soon be one-stop shopping.

    If there is a Fourth Amendment case to be made, it would be on the basis of “secure in their persons … against unreasonable searches”.

    … and lo and behold, a quick check reveals that such a case has already been filed.

    To sum up: I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have any security at the airports. What bothers me is how mindless it all is, how reactive, how PC, how profiling-averse, and, ultimately and unsurprisingly, how ineffective — as witness the shoe, underwear, and cargo incidents.

    It just makes us look weak and stupid and afraid, and I don’t really think it’s buying us much security.

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 2:48 pm | Permalink
  18. bob koepp says

    A couple months back, I was picked out (randomly?) from a line of would be passengers going through airport security and treated to both a full-body scan and a pat down. The latter was sufficiently “stimulating” that I inquired of my new friend whether propriety required that we get married. My attempt at humor was not appreciated.

    Peter… not to seem cheeky, but is there a medical reason (e.g., family history, etc) why you get a prostate exam every year, or are you seriously masochistic? (The exam itself doesn’t bother me, but the prep is disgusting.)

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 3:18 pm | Permalink
  19. the one eyed man says

    No family history – it’s not a colonoscopy or, God forbid, a colostomy (too hard to find shoes to match the bag) – just a thumb up the butt. It’s part of my annual physical. The high point of my year.

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 5:18 pm | Permalink
  20. the one eyed man says

    I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that TSA screening has been ineffective. After all, there has not been a terrorist event originating from a US airport since 9/11. It is reasonable to think that the TSA – either through overt action or the chilling effect of its security apparatus – had something to do with it. After all, it is under their watch.

    However, I do completely agree about profiling, and I am mystified why anybody would be against it, including the groups who would be profiled. Don’t they want to be safe too? The purpose of the TSA is not to make people feel good; it’s to make them safe. If you have limited resources, the rational place to use them is where they are likely to be most efficacious. The most effective arsenal against a terrorist attack is a combination of both randomized and profile-driven searches.

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 5:38 pm | Permalink
  21. bob koepp says

    My apologies, Peter. My addled brain read ‘colonoscopy’ instead of ‘rectal exam.’ A misspent youth does catch up with one…

    Posted November 24, 2010 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

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