What price security?

The air-traveling public has been remarkably cooperative as airport security gradually became more intrusive, annoying and time-consuming in the nine years since the Sept. 11 terrorists used box cutters to hijack airliners. But their patience appears to be limited, judging by the furor over new full-body scanners and "enhanced" pat-down searches now implemented at some airports.

Recent opinion polls show a large majority of Americans support the new security procedures as necessary steps to protect the safety of the traveling public. But most Americans don't fly much — fewer than half fly even once or twice a year. Opposition to the new screening requirements goes up the more frequently people fly.

Even those travelers who happen to use an airport where the new scanners are used — only 70 of the nation's 450 airports currently have them — may not have to undergo a scan. In most cases, the full-body scans will be performed only if a traveler sets off the metal detectors now routine everywhere.

The "enhanced" pat-downs, which involve a Transportation Security Administration employee touching the genital area through clothing, will be done only if a traveler refuses the full-body scan. TSA officials say fears of radiation from the scans are overblown. The dose received in a scan is less than that absorbed by using a cell phone and about the same amount absorbed every two minutes during a normal airline flight.

So why the outrage?

The new scans and searches invade people's personal space more than any technique previously used. The scanners produce an accurate if ghostly image of the traveler's naked body, and the pat-downs involve having one's privates palpated by a stranger.

Air travel long ago lost any glamour it may once have had, as lines grew longer, planes got smaller and seats were placed closer together. This latest development makes the prospect of jetting home for the holidays more of an ordeal than ever.

And yet, we want to feel safe when we travel. We want to know that our government has done everything in its power to make sure we won't be the victim of a terrorist attack while simply trying to get from one place to another.

Technology exists to make the scans less invasive, but the U.S. government for whatever reason did not choose to use it.

Two scientists at Lawrence Livermore labs approached the TSA four years ago with a proposal to install an algorithm in the machinery that would turn the image seen on the screen into a fun-house distortion unrecognizable as a human body while accurately displaying any weapons or other contraband. They were ignored.

The Dutch have a system that displays a traveler's body as a stick figure while spotting anything that shouldn't be there.

The real question is not whether the scans are unreasonably invasive, but whether they actually make us safer.

Ever since 9/11, the security bureaucracy has been furiously implementing measures to stop the last attempted attack. The terrorists, meanwhile, have stayed a step ahead, not repeating failed attempts but trying something new every time.

The full-body scans are a reaction to the "underwear bomber" who unsuccessfully tried to set off explosives secreted in his skivvies. Last year.

The terrorists immediately moved on. Their latest tactic was shipping explosives in printer cartridges. British authorities immediately restricted the shipping of toner cartridges weighing more than 500 grams.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist — or an explosives expert — to figure out that the next bomb will be hidden in something completely different.

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