“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
– Attributed to Ben Franklin
There are a number of large, ugly and political topics in the news today. They are ugly, of course, because they are political, and because they are political they will be surrounded with rhetoric reduced to sound bites, and a lot of good old fashioned blithering.
One of these topics is the current situation with regard to the Transportation Security Administration and its enhanced inspections by either an imaging device or a thorough frisking by a TSA agent.
First, some of the factual issues. There are two types of enhanced imaging devices being deployed. Both produce an image that is essentially an electronic strip search. The more graphic type of imaging device uses low dose radiation and relies on backscatter. According to the TSA, this has been “deemed safe.” In my younger days I worked in medical radiology and know that many of the earliest medical practitioners suffered bad effects because the devices they used were assumed to be safe, but were not. Some of this was based on calculations that predicted a “maximum allowable dose” of radiation. This was when dealing with radiation was in its infancy so they made a guess and based the allowable dose on a fraction of the amount that would cause to turn skin red (erythema). It was later determined that this dose was way too high to be safe (but notice they called it allowable – not “safe”).
Sometimes things are deemed allowable or safe because we don’t know how the story ends – it’s only after years of experience with an entity that we are able to decide whether it’s safe or not. Early Radiologists, the physicians who specialize in radiology were the ones who inadvertently became the test subjects. As they got older, some radiologists lost fingers to cancer; I still remember one radiologist with whom I worked who, when chatting, would pull out his pocket knife and calmly whittle lesions off his hands. These ill effects were attributed to the Radiologists placing their hands into the x-ray field during fluoroscopy to manipulate a patient’s position. Fluoroscopy uses an x-ray beam to produce a live image on a screen, and early fluoroscopic units used many times higher amounts of x-radiation than would be allowed today. Educated professionals utilizing the data and scientific techniques available at the time did not believe there was significant risk.
One key factor about radiation exposure is that it is cumulative. Your body can be affected more or less by the sum of all the radiation you receive throughout your life.
The TSA scanners utilize back-scatter. Now I know just enough physics to be dangerous, but I was always taught that x-radiation cannot be reflected. It can pass through an object or it can be absorbed. Sometimes it is almost a combination of the two due to a principle called Compton’s effect. When ionizing radiation interacts with matter, it gives up some of its energy to the matter which results in a change of direction of the x-ray travel. The direction of change is more or less random and called secondary radiation or scatter. If the scatter has sufficient energy, when it interacts with other matter the process is repeated. Back scatter is the scatter that travels more or less in the direction from which the x-ray beam originated.
In the backscatter imaging devices it would appear that some amount of ionizing energy is interacting with the matter (i.e. the airline passenger). At the very least this cannot be expected to have an overall positive effect on these passengers, and may be detrimental.
The media have reported about intelligence sources in Saudi Arabia or Yemen who have identified terrorist efforts, and sometimes the terrorists themselves. Fortunately this has halted some terrorist efforts in the early stages. On the other hand, I’m not aware of terrorist efforts that have been foiled the TSA. While enforcement agencies do not like to tip their hand when they figure out what the bad guys are doing, things do leak out. One might expect a few strategic leaks about the TSA’s successes particularly while this issue is in the headlines.
Now to the philosophical aspects.
First, the TSA agents at the gate get their marching orders from the hierarchy of a government bureaucracy, so the poor schmuck at the checkpoint doesn’t have a lot of choice. Give the economy, would you make waves and possibly lose a steady paycheck, excellent benefits and a promising retirement? So let’s all agree that the front line TSA grunts are probably just as thrilled with this as travelers are.
And now the second and more important key philosophical point, which will involve some role playing. Let’s pretend that you and I are terrorists and that we hate America. Imagine us having this conversation.
Me: “We’ve attacked and destroyed their building yet the Americans have only become stronger. How can we possibly win against these people?”
You (and notice that I gave you all the good lines): “We develop a plan so that every American makes a complete fool of himself. Let’s make them so frightened that they WILLINGLY let the government take naked pictures of them and frisk them like common criminals. If we can make them grovel to such a pathetic level, we have surely won!”
Is it game, match and point for the bad guys? You tell me.
Copyright 2010 S.F. Nowak all rights reserved