Steve Chapman

Very few of us would be willing to get naked in front of a uniformed agent for the privilege of getting on a plane. But the scanners would have the same effect. How graphic are their images? British authorities barred the use of scanners for travelers under 18 for fear of violating child pornography laws.

Chertoff takes comfort that the officers inspecting the images would not know whose unclothed form they’re viewing and that the faces would be blurred. He seems to assume we can always trust every one of those government employees. (If I were an attractive woman, I’d have particularly strong doubts.)

It’s not reassuring that, as Chertoff notes, travelers could opt to get pat-downs instead. Any pat-down aimed at making sure you aren’t carrying explosive powders in your crotch is going to stir unpleasant memories of your last physical.

As it happens, the sacrifice involved in mass use of the full-body scanners, which TSA is already planning, would probably be futile. A Conservative member of the British parliament who previously worked for a company making scanners said that “in all the testing that we undertook, it was unlikely that it would have picked up the current explosive devices being used by al-Qaida” -- including those used in the Christmas plot.

The more intractable problem is that terrorists are fiendishly capable of adaptation. If the scanners can find plastic explosives hidden in underwear -- which is not guaranteed -- the evildoers have another option that would foil these gadgets: hiding the bomb in a body cavity.

That’s exactly how one suicide bomber tried to assassinate the prince in charge of counterterrorism for Saudi Arabia. The charge went off, and the prince was lucky to survive. Today, full-body scanners. Tomorrow, cavity searches?

Preventing an Airbus from being blown up, of course, doesn’t mean preventing a terrorist from killing large numbers of people. If we secure commercial planes, jihadists can set off their bombs in sports venues, subway cars, shopping malls or other crowded places.

So here’s the sad reality: If we insist on preserving what little remains of our privacy, we will remain at risk of a terrorist attack. And if we give it up? Ditto.

Steve Chapman

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

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