Want to get on an airplane? Let's see your scrotum.

Science, technology, and life.
Dec. 30 2009 7:40 AM

Show Some Balls

Want to get on an airplane? Let's see your scrotum.

Illlustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Let's be blunt: You'll have to start showing your gonads when you go to the airport.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

You won't have to show them to the people standing next to you. But you'll have to show them to the Transportation Security Administration. You'll stand in front of a machine that sees through your clothes. It will capture every contour of your body and relay this picture to a screen in a nearby room. In that room, somebody who works for TSA will study the picture, including your gonads. They'll study your gonads because that's where bombers hide bombs.

Go look at the ABC News photo of the underwear of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the alleged Detroit bomber. Look where the packet of explosive powder was sewn: right into the crotch. You don't need advanced training in Yemen to figure out why it was put there: because it's the last place TSA wants to look.

Well, almost the last place. Four months ago, another al-Qaida agent smuggled the same powder into a Saudi palace and tried to blow up the Saudi chief of counterterrorism. Saudi investigators think the bomber in that incident, like the Detroit bomber, hid the powder in his underwear. CBS News tells a different story: The Saudi bomber hid the powder in his rectum. Which theory is correct? It's hard to know, since the Saudi bomber, his underwear, and his rectum ended up all over the room.

You get the picture: Bombers hide bombs where we're least likely to probe them: under the breasts, behind the scrotum, up the bum. So that's where we have to look.

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This wasn't how you were hoping to spend your time at the security gate. You wanted a flight, not a prostate exam. Fortunately, we don't have to grope you—at least, not yet. But we do have to look at you, including the private bits.

That's where technology comes in. TSA is beginning to deploy scanners that can see you naked without removing your clothes. At last count, the agency said 40 scanners were in use at 19 airports, with 150 more on the way. To reassure us that the scans won't expose us in full detail, TSA says the resulting images are scrubbed by an "algorithm" so they look like a "chalk etching" or a "fuzzy photo negative."

It's time to give up this squeamishness. Forget the etchings and fuzzy negatives. Take the whole picture, TSA: breasts, scrotum, penis, labia, gluteal cleft, whatever. Look at mine so you can look at the next guy's. Because if he's a bomber, that's where you'll find the bomb.

Privacy advocates are fighting to keep the scanners from becoming standard procedure. In today's New York Times, their point man, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, argues, "I don't think anybody needs to see my 8-year-old naked in order to secure [an] airplane."

Sorry, Congressman. You're mistaken. Smugglers aren't stupid. They'll use whatever category of passengers you exclude from scrutiny. That's why terrorists and drug traffickers use women and babies. My 9-year-old and 6-year-old are fair game for the scanner. So's your 8-year-old. There were 8-year-olds on the Detroit flight. I'll bet you every parent of every kid on that flight, in retrospect, would gladly have let their children go through the scanner in exchange for Abdulmutallab getting the same scrutiny.

Another privacy advocate tells the Times: "If there are a hundred tactics and I protect against two of them, I'm not making you safer. If we use full-body scanning, they're going to do something else."

Wrong again. It's true that if we use the scanners, bombers will change tactics. But that isn't failure. It's success. Security is a constant arms race against innovative malefactors. By pursuing them in Afghanistan and Pakistan, you force them to Yemen. By tracking their cell phones, you force them to use couriers. By hunting them with drones in the mountains, you force them into cities. You can't stop them, but you can cripple them and keep them off balance.

Scanners can detect bomb powder sewn into underwear. The terrorists' logical next step is to put the powder where the scanners can't find it: inside their bodies. That may be what the Saudi bomber did. But look at the resulting complications. It's a lot harder to reach a bomb in your rectum than in your underwear. Perhaps that's why the Saudi bomber, according to CBS News, needed a cell phone to detonate his powder. And he failed to kill his target even though he was standing right next to him when the bomb went off. The bomber's body may have smothered the blast.

In a May 31 letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, 34 privacy groups raise a further objection to the scanners: After repeatedly assuring the public that the scanners would be used only on passengers selected for secondary screening, TSA has begun to use them on all passengers at some airports. Why should we trust any other assurances from the government?

I agree. In April, I made the same point in Slate: TSA's track record shows it will do whatever it thinks it needs to do, regardless of prior assurances. Any detail omitted by airport screeners—a blurred crotch in the body scan, an untouched groin during the pat-down—will become a loophole exploited by terrorists. These loopholes, in turn, will have to be closed.

I still believe that. But the Detroit bomb has changed the equation. The blurred crotch is no longer an abstract problem. It's a demonstrated threat, with hundreds of lives at stake.

Let go of your fear of nudity. In the age of pubic powdered explosives, we can't let you board a plane without somebody scrutinizing your naked body. But we can offer you a different kind of privacy: Nobody who sees your naked body will see your face. That's how the TSA system works: The naked image shows up in a separate room without facial detail. The officer who sees you in the flesh never sees you on the monitor. The officer who sees you on the monitor never sees you in the flesh. It's like the blind men and the elephant: Nobody has the whole picture.

To its credit, TSA has become more explicit about the technology. In April, I complained that the agency had removed a frontal scan of a male passenger from its Web site and had limited its posted images to four scans so tiny you'd need a magnifying glass to see them. Guess what? TSA has now posted a magnifying glass so you can examine the resulting crotch scans in all their glory. Each guy's cleft and scrotum are so clear you can see exactly what's tucked where. That kind of transparency used to scare me. Now it's a relief.

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