Daniel W. Drezner

Three ways of looking at full body scanners

Three ways of looking at full body scanners

Cards on the table:  having experienced one first-hand, I hate the new full body scanners being used at airports.  I hate that their existence allows TSA officials to bark additional orders at me like I’m a five-year old.  I hate having to hold my hands up in a surrender position to be scanned. I hate having to empty every f***ing piece of lint from my pockets before going through one.  I hate that they have lengthened and not shortened the time it takes to get through security.  I hate the fact that other countries with equally acute terrorist concerns are not nearly as physically invasive in their security screenings.   I hate the sneaking suspicion I have that the scanners are merely a massive exercise in kabuki security theater designed to alleviate the psychological fears of some travelers.  I hate that the official response to these complaints boils down to, “we face a determined enemy.”  I hate the stupid reassurances that the “imaging technology that we use cannot store, export, print or transmit images,” when, whoops, it turns out that this has already happened.  I hate the ways in which these scanners make it so easy to mock the United States

The thing is, right now I’m in the distinct minority of Americans. 

The above chart is the result of a CBS poll released yesterday (which also found a majority of Americans to oppose racial profiling) on the question of full-body scanners in airports.  The results speak for themselves. 

Or do they?  Here are a couple of different ways of interpreting these results. 

1)  Big friggin’ surprise.  It’s pretty easy to find U.S. public opinion polls demonstrating majority support for homeland security measures ranging from crackdowns on illegal immigration to  torture enhanced interrogration techniques.  As I’ve said in the past, when it comes to homeland security, the average American has few qualms about strengthening the national security state.  This latest poll is just one more data point supporting that argument. 

2)  Oh, you wait… you just waitNate Silver ably rounds up the rages against these machines coming from angry unions, pissed-off bloggers, and generally cantankerous individuals surreptitiously taping their pat-downs

What do these vocal members of the minority have in common?  They’ve all had to fly recently.  Silver posits that as more Americans face the indignity of these scanners, the poll numbers will start to change.  Well see.

3)  New Elite, meet Real America.  Silver also points out that a minority of travelers comprise a majority of actual air travel:

A study by the market-research firm Arbitron found, for instance, that frequent fliers — those who take 4 or more round trips per year — account for the 57 percent majority of all air travel, even though they make up just 18 percent of air travelers and something like 7 percent of the overall American population.

At least one past survey has identified differences in perceptions about airport security procedures between frequent and occasional fliers. This was a 2007 Gallup poll, which found that while just 26 percent of occasional travels were dissatisfied with airport security, the level rose to 37 percent among those who fly more frequently.

What I think we need to know then, is how those who have actually traveled through an airport that uses the full-body scanners feel about them — particularly if they’re people who fly frequently and are therefore going to bear the burden of any inconvenience, embarrassment, invasion of privacy or health risk brought on by the new technology.

Well… maybe.  Silver wants to prioritize the preferences of frequent travelers over other Americans.  To be fair to the pro-scanner position, however, it’s not just the people who board planes who are affected the consequences of homeland security failures.  I’m not convinced that the opinions of grounded Americans shouldn’t apply. 

There’s a deeper cultural question, however.  There’s an awful lot of resentment welling up in the United States against “elites.”  Defining just who is in the elite and who is in “Real America” is an inexact science.  I can’t help but wonder, however, if frequent air travel is the perfect Sorting Hat that separates the elites (i.e., the frequent travelers) from the masses (i.e., everyone else).  [UPDATE:  Adam Serwer makes this point as well:  “The TSA’s new passenger-screening measures just happen to fall on the political and economic elites who can make their complaints heard. It’s not happening to those scary Arabs anymore. It’s happening to ‘us.'”  See also Seth Masket and Kevin Drum on this point.]

This isn’t necessarily a partisan divide — conservative elites appear to be just as frosted with the TSA as liberals.  Body scanners are an issue that only animates the hostility of elites, however.  Real America couldn’t give a flying fig one way or the other — except if National Op-out Day gets them mad when they’re traveling because of even longer security lines.  But I think it’s a better than 50/50 chance that they’ll be angrier at the opt-outers than the TSA employees. 

Maybe the scanners will quickly disappear in the face of elite protests.  Or maybe it means that some clever populist will seize on this issue as a way to talk about out-of-touch elites again. 

Clearly, I hope it’s #2, but I don’t know.  With travel season upon us during the next six weeks, we’ll see…..