In arguing against airport body scanners, I've been met with variations on an increasingly prevalent fallacy: "if it makes us a little safer, it's worth it"; "if it saves one life, stops one crime…" What a specious argument that is. It would "save one child" to ban the car, but we don't, because it would be disproportionate and we have to get on with normal life, even if we incur a slightly higher element of risk in doing so. Safety, in and of itself, is not an absolute good.
Society would be a lot safer if we had a night curfew, or banned alcohol, or were forced to wear elbow and knee pads. We don't encourage people to take wild risks, but we don't make (many) liberty-reducing and disproportionate motor laws, either. We should react to the threat of terrorism in the same way.
It's peculiar, the hoops we've obediently jumped through since 9/11. Belts off, jackets off, shoes off, no liquids, no gels, hop on one leg, bear the officiousness of the power-happy bureaucrat with good humour. And now, expose yourself at the airport in order to fly, even though there are real questions about whether the scanners work. And perversely, given the safety first agenda, these £100,000 machines may be dangerous. The Inter-Agency Committee on Radiation Safety (which includes the European Commission, the IAEA, and the WHO) says passengers should be made aware of the health risks of airport body screenings; that governments must explain any decision to expose the public to higher levels of cancer-causing radiation; and that pregnant women and children should not be subject to scanning – authoritative guidance the government ignores.
People are understandably afraid of terrorism. But we didn't allow the IRA to change our way of life to anything like the same degree. Jettisoning liberty in the face of what is objectively a much smaller risk is both wrong and entirely disproportionate – an understandable but foolish overreaction from a government desperate to be seen to be doing something. President Obama said that systemic failures in sharing information already held by the security services allowed the "Christmas Bomber" to get on the Detroit flight. It's not some new, magic solution that's needed; just competent use of the current ones.
Alex Deane is director of Big Brother Watch
This article is reproduced from today's edition of the Independent