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. Follow him on Twitter.

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.