The brief // by Ben FrankelThe color of truth is always gray

Published 18 March 2011

Those who object to thorough security checks at airports have every right to hold on to their belief that TSA employs methods are too intrusive, but the majority of travelers prefer greater safety even if achieving it may compromise some people’s notions of privacy. We should recall the era when smoking was permitted on planes: you could choose to sit in either the “smoking” or “non-smoking” seats; trouble was, a plane is a closed tube, so within minutes of take-off, everybody on board was engulfed in cigarette smoke, whether or not he or she was a smoker. By the late 1980s the airlines, with government encouragement, banned smoking on planes. The reason: smokers have rights, but they have no right to turn non-smokers into second-hand smokers and thus heighten non-smokers’ risk of dying of lung cancer. There is a lesson here for the debate over privacy and security at airports: we should assume that some people feel strongly that their privacy and dignity are being compromised by full-body scanning. We should respect their views. But they have no right to ask the rest of us to take greater risks with our lives because of their strongly held views with regard to privacy.

Here are two comments on two developments that caught our eyes this week – the continuing debate over security and privacy at U.S. airports, and the growing tensions between Sunnis and Shia’sin the Middle East.

1. Airport priorities
those of us who remember what it was like to fly on a commercial airline before the late 1980s would recall the joke called “no-smoking” seats: the front half of the plane was designated no-smoking, while smokers were relegated to the back half of the plane. Trouble is, a plane is a closed tube, so within minutes of take-off, everybody on board was engulfed in cigarette smoke, whether or not he or she was a smoker. In Germany the joke was even funnier: those who flew on domestic flights in Germany would recall that seats on the right side of the aisle were designated as smoking seats, while the seats on the left side of the isle were designated no-smoking seats.

By 1988, some 80 percent of domestic flights in the United States were made no-smoking flights. Smoking was more prevalent then, and smokers were less willing than today to be told where and when they could smoke. To cater to smokers, some airlines began to offer a few smoking flights – especially on long routes – but demand was not robust enough to justify the gesture, and by the early 1990s the switch to all-no-smoking planes was complete.

Why this walk down memory lane? Because it provides a useful lesson with regard to the persistent campaign of the critics of the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) airport security screening methods.

I am not a smoker and I always resented the fact that I was made into one while flying, with smokers puffing away in the seats behind me or in seats to my right. A smoker has every right to smoke, but he has no right to force me into becoming one against my will.