The Transportation Security Administration could scarcely have bought itself worse publicity than the recent revelation that a 95-year-old wheelchair user, a late-stage cancer patient, received a security pat-down and was ordered to remove her adult diaper by TSA agents in Florida.
The thought that this poor woman who is so unlikely to pose a serious threat to anyone would face such indignity is painful just to think about. She was, according to her daughter who filed a complaint with federal authorities last week, simply trying to get from Florida to Michigan in order to spend her final days with relatives.
Intolerable, outrageous, indecent — any of the words are reasonable descriptions of what is alleged to have happened at Northwest Florida Regional Airport on June 18.
But here's another: appropriate. The TSA can't tell its employees never to give a pat-down to a 95-year-old woman, or a 6-year-old boy, or an adult who doesn't want anyone to touch his "junk" — to quote a couple of other embarrassing moments for airport screeners.
Why? Because as soon as certain classes of people are identified as non-threatening, then terrorists are likely to recruit people who fit that exact profile.
That's apparently what happened in a remote village in Afghanistan on Sunday, when an 8-year-old girl was tricked into carrying a remote-controlled bomb to police officers. It wasn't the first time insurgents have used a child to carry out a lethal attack, but it may have been the most shocking.
Couldn't happen in the U.S., you say? Perhaps, but do you want the security of your next flight to rest on that assumption? Finding homemade bombs in people's shoes and sewn into underwear seemed unlikely at one time, too.
Of course, one expects the TSA to handle such circumstances with the utmost care and civility. According to the TSA, the officers involved "acted professionally and according to proper procedure." Whether they did or not is probably worth closer examination, and not just by the TSA's own top officials.
The family is obviously upset over the incident, and one can scarcely blame them. As the woman's daughter told a Florida newspaper last week, one doesn't expect something like this to happen on "American soil."
For that, she can blame not the TSA or U.S. Department of Homeland Security but the hijackers of Sept. 11, 2001 and al-Qaida and its extremist sympathizers, who continue to look for ways to terrorize the U.S.
As technology and techniques of security screening improve, perhaps the TSA will gradually have less need to be so intrusive. But until that happens, the traveling public has the right to expect screeners to go to any reasonable length necessary to ensure the safety of flights, both foreign and domestic.
Far more embarrassing for the TSA would have been the alternative headline: "Plane crashes in bomb attack from unexamined passenger." Dignity might have been left intact under such circumstances — but not much else.
That's not to endorse giving the TSA carte blanche to torture and humiliate travelers. There's generally no shortage of airport screening horror stories out there. But until the unlikely day when there is no serious threat of terrorism in air travel, airport screenings are a fact of 21st century life, and better to err on the side of safety then sensitivity.