Are We Safe Yet?

Sitting in a hard plastic chair, waiting for someone to show up and pat search me,  I look at the mass of people going through airport security around me and wonder if we’re safe yet.
I remember what air travel used to be like.  One went to the airport with a identification and a ticket, checked in at the desk, and leisurely walked to the gate, oftentimes accompanied by family members or loved ones. I have fond memories of my grandparents waving at the window as I boarded my flight in Tuscon. I have pictures at the Manchester airport with my firstborn as she waited to board her first flight alone to college. Back then, airports were happy places. Security, if there was any, was hidden in the background.
When my mother traveled to Italy one year, she was struck by the fact that airports there had security officers that carried guns. Machine guns. My mother was a cop, so it wasn’t the guns that scared her. It was the fact that it seemed reasonable to expect an event requiring an armed response.
Something we thought would never happen here.
And then 9/11 happened and all of a sudden U.S.airports had armed men and woman. I remember the first time flying through Charlotte and seeing men, who I assumed were National Guard or the like, positioned throughout the airport with casually held machine guns and rifles.  It lent a different tenor to the trip, but deep down I was more scared of the men with guns than I was of terrorists. The guns I could see. The tension I could feel. How many times has a simple misunderstanding escalated into violence? Enough to know that men with guns frightened me and had no place in the airport.
The guns were only the first change. Suddenly only “authorized travelers,” meaning those with tickets and boarding passes, could enter the gate areas. Metal detectors and x-rayed luggage became the new standard. We all learned the ever changing rules of travel: Laptops out and turned on, shoes, jackets, and belts off.  No nail clippers, no lighters, no scissors. The area around the screening checkpoint became choked with the belongings we left behind in order to go forward.  We packed our bags and hoped the inadvertent tangle of cords and batteries didn’t get mistaken for a bomb.
We became afraid to say the word bomb in the airport terminal.
Then one sunny day I traveled back from Myrtle Beach and discovered liquids were the new enemy. Forget carrying drinks on the plane, let alone shampoo or conditioner.  Security made us dump them at the gate. Liquids in our carry-on bags were first forbidden, and then “after extensive research and understanding of current threats” (TSA website) were allowed  in 3.4 ounces containers in a ziplock bag. Security checkpoint trashes overflowed with oversized shampoo bottles, liquid foundation,  and discarded drinks.
Then full body scanner machines were introduced. Touted as a noninvasive method to detect items hidden under clothes, we learned to stand with our arms outstretched and our feet on the yellow outlines. We took off our shoes, jackets, belts, hats.  We took our laptops out and put them in a separate bin. Our liquids,  too. We watched as TSA officials scrutinized our identification cards and checked our boarding passes. At least they didn’t have guns. We endured pat downs in public. We endured pat downs in private.  Trigger the metal detector or refuse the body scanner and assume the position.
So as I waited at Charlotte airport recently on a hard black, plastic chair for someone to pat me down, I saw people pass with dogs, cats, small children, strollers and wheelchairs.  Surprisingly, none of them  went through the metal detector or the body scanner. They, and their owners were pulled aside, I assume for a pat down, but what good is patting down a cat? A dog? A stroller? A wheelchair?
If a determined person wants to get a bomb, a gun, or an airborne virus on a plane,  do we have the technology to stop them?  I don’t believe our security can keep up with human ingenuity. If someone wants to do it bad enough, they’ll find a way.
I think of all of the liberties we have given up, all of the dignity we have lost, all of the changes we have endured, and I have to ask, are we safe yet? I think not.

I’ll Settle For A Pat Down

Tomorrow I’ll be taking a flight out of my regional airport and will be forced to choose between a full body scan and a pat down.  It’s an easy choice for me, I have no problem with being patted down, but the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents never seem happy.  Each time I ask for a pat down in lieu of a full body scan, they try to discourage me. 
Perhaps it’s because they don’t have enough womanpower to accommodate my request. Perhaps the female workers feel uncomfortable and would prefer everyone choose radiation. No matter.  As long as I have a choice, I’d rather have the known hazards of a pat down (essentially none except for the creepy feeling of a stranger’s hands on my body) than risk the unknown hazards of a new technology that’s been implemented without, in my opinion, adequate time and study.  
The TSA, which refers to the full body scanner as advanced imaging technology states it “is safe and meets national health and safety requirements”  and “results confirmed that the radiation doses for the individuals being screened, operators, and bystanders were well below the dose limits specified by the American National Standards Institute (  The Archives of Internal Medicine reports:  “The estimation of cancer risks associated with these scans is difficult, but using the only available models, the risk would be extremely small, even among frequent flyers. We conclude that there is no significant threat of radiation from the scans” (
Unfortunately I have a hard time trusting these pronouncements.  
History tells us that many times in the rush to develop and market new technology, risks are either underestimated or unknown until something has been used for a period of years and on a multitude of people.  
CT scans became widely available by 1980. After more than thirty years of use, concerns about a possible correlation between CT scans and brain cancer surfaced.  Now the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has an initiative to reduce unnecessary radiation exposure and notes that CT scans, fluoroscopy and nuclear medicine imaging exams have benefits and risks and “these types of exams expose patients to ionizing radiation, which may elevate a person’s lifetime risk of developing cancer” (  
In 2003, DePuy Orthopaedics introduced a new metal-on-metal hip replacement implant. In August 2010 they issued a voluntary recall after discovering a higher than expected number of patients needed revision surgery. 
Vioxx, a medication marketed for arthritis and acute pain, was approved for use by the FDA in 1999. The increased risk of cardiovascular events, including heart attacks and strokes, wasn’t found until a later study in June 2000. An additional warning  was added to the Vioxx label in 2002, but it took another two years before Merck & Co. voluntarily withdrew Vioxx from the market after a third study confirmed the cardiovascular risks. The aftermarket studies for Vioxx were voluntary studies the manufacturer undertook to look at side effects and additional indications. If not for those, Vioxx may have been on the market for many years before its serious, and sometimes fatal, side effects were discovered.  
In all of these cases, decent, hardworking scientists, academics, and government monitors gave their seal of approval for something that turned out to have unintended, dangerous side effects. In all of these cases the product was in wide use before the danger was known.  
In ten years, maybe I’ll have a different opinion on the full body scanner.
For tomorrow, pat me down.