When I discuss various issues relating to safety and security, I generally take the view that we should have the minimum security needed to provide an effective defense. I also take into account the impact of such measures on rights and liberties while also giving positive and negative consequences their just due. This approach, obviously enough, means that my position on specific security/safety measures can be argued against on these various grounds.
Since I am against the use of full body scans and pat downs (at least as they are currently implemented), one way to argue against me is to consider the dire consequences of the dreaded “what if” scenario. “What if”, says the concerned person, “the scans are stopped and a terrorist takes out a plane with an underwear bomb that the scanners would have stopped?” Put in argument form, the idea is that the scanners and pat downs should be used because they have a chance of stopping such an attack. The added safety presumably overrides concerns about privacy rights, government intrusiveness, and potential harms to passengers (such as being humiliated in various ways).
On the face of it, “what if” scenarios are a legitimate consideration when it comes to security and safety. So, for example, when considering whether deep water drilling should be allowed or not, we should consider what would happen if another well failed. As another example, when deciding whether to lock my office door or not, I should consider what would happen if a dishonest person walked by and saw my computer and printer behind an unlocked door.
While “what if” scenarios are worth considering, merely presenting a dire possible consequence does not automatically justify a practice. After all, the likelihood of the dire consequence needs to be considered as does the likely effectiveness of the method and the cost it imposes.
Naturally enough, the assessment needs to done on the basis of a consistently applied principle or set of principles. Naturally, the principle of relevant difference can be used to justify differences-but this requires showing how the differences actually make a difference.
In the case of scans, they could possibly prevent an underwear bomb from being brought aboard. There is a chance that such an attack might be tried again. As such, there is a non-zero chance that the scanners could prevent harm being done. However, the odds of such an attempt are most likely extremely low. After all, there has been only one attempt.
The body scans and pat downs clearly infringe on basic privacy rights such as the right/liberty not to be touched and the right/liberty not to have people see one naked. While this rights can be justly violated or set aside, this requires proper justification. There is also the fact that there have been some rather unpleasant incidents (such as the urine bag incident and images being saved from the scans) that indicate that these methods are not without their costs. And, of course, there is the actual cost of the machines used in scanning.
Weighing the harms and benefits seems to lead to the conclusion that the scanners and pat downs are not justified.
However, the “what if” gambit can still be played. “What if the scans stop and a plane gets blown up! What would you say then, Dr. cost-benefit analysis?”
What I would say is, of course, that such an incident would be horrible. However, I must wonder what sort of principle the person making the “what if” gambit is using. If the principle is that we can violate rights and expend $170 million+ to provide some possible security/safety against a specific sort of very unlikely occurrence, then I would hold the person to applying the principle consistently.
After all, there are plenty of likely threats and dangers out there that could be reduced by infringing people’s rights or spending $170 million. For example, the right to drive cars could be taken away in the interest of safety (“What if we didn’t ban cars and someone got run over! What would you say then?”). People would then have to walk or bike (or use other means) which would also make them healthier. Many people die each year from traffic incidents and even more die from poor health. This would address both threats. Also, the economy could be boosted by selling bikes, skates, running gear and other such things. Redoing the infrastructure and creating more public transport would also create jobs.
As another example, we know that oil wells can blow up, kill people and create environmental problems ( “What if an oil well blows up, kills people and pollutes the sea! What would you say then?”). If we are justified in using scanners to try to prevent an underwear bomb attack, then we would seem to be far more justified in banning oil wells and replacing them with alternative energy sources.
As a third example, consider guns. Sure, people have a right to keep and bear arms. However, look at all the gun deaths. “What if someone took a gun and killed some people! What would you say then?” Since no one has been killed by an underwear bomb and lots of people have been killed by guns, if we can infringe on rights to protect people from the incredibly low possibility of an underwear bomb, then we surely can infringe on rights to protect people from guns.
As a final example, we could keep people safer by putting cameras everywhere and on everyone. “What if someone committed a crime that could have been prevented by cameras! What would you say then?” While this would violate the right to privacy, if security trumps privacy then this would seem to be fine.
Naturally, I am willing to tolerate oil wells (for now), I am willing to tolerate cars, I like guns, I’m against body scans, and I’m against living in a panopticon. However, this is because I contend that it is acceptable to tolerate a degree of risk in order to maintain rights.