Steve Chapman

To judge from the news accounts, Umar Abdulmutallab did everything to get himself caught except wear an Osama bin Laden T-shirt onto that Northwest Airlines flight Christmas Day. Yet the danger didn’t dawn on anyone until he allegedly set himself on fire while trying to detonate the explosives hidden in his underwear.

Going Rogue by Sarah Palin FREE

So the solution being proposed is the one we hear whenever the government fails: Give it greater power.

This is a common liberal impulse. The public schools aren’t educating students adequately? They need more money. The stimulus didn’t rev up job creation? Pass another one.

But when it comes to national security and law enforcement, the same tendency afflicts many conservatives. They generally think the federal government could screw up a three-car funeral, but they expect it to perform with flawless efficiency in finding murderous fanatics. And if it fails, they look to expand its authority to do the job it botched.

This is not true of everyone on the right. One of the ideas already in the works is screening all passengers with full-body scanners that let Transportation Security Administration agents see through clothing. Michael Chertoff, who was secretary of homeland security under President George W. Bush, has urged their expanded use, while ridiculing “privacy ideologues, for whom every security measure is unacceptable.”

But last year, a bill sponsored by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, banning the routine use of these machines easily passed the House, with the support of two out of every three GOP members. At the time, he warned, “The images offer a disturbingly accurate view of a person’s body underneath clothing, even allowing Transportation Security Administration officials to distinguish gender or see the sweat on a person’s back.”

That vote might come out a little differently today, but Chaffetz is not backing down. “I think that’s the challenge for our society, and there is no simple, easy answer: How do you find that right balance between protecting your personal privacy and yet the need to secure, say, an airplane,” he told public radio station KCPW in Salt Lake City. Yes, there are Republicans who think there are limits to how much privacy we should relinquish in pursuit of security.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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