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The New Rules of Flying

I still remember my first airplane flight. I was about ten years old. It was with Delta. A window seat. A 737, I think. The pilot gave me a pin in the shape of golden wings.

As I grew older and realized I was never going to get a Jetsons-esque flying car of my own, no matter how far I traveled in the future by growing older, I understood that our flying cars were instead more like flying buses. I might not get my own flying car, but the flying bus was still a convenient and quick means of getting wherever I need to go in a very expedient manner. And because I don't travel for a living, until recently, flying was still an enjoyable experience.

But those days are now gone. Not only will I never get my flying car, now I don't even want to ride the flying bus anymore.

Those of you who've been reading this blog since 2003 know that I'm neither an alarmist nor an extremist. I play it pretty middle of the road. I've never called for a boycott of anything, and my convictions about extremely divisive issues I've mostly kept to myself. But in light of recent events, I feel compelled to agree with a growing national sentiment that the Transportation Security Administration of the US Department of Homeland Security is out of control.

By now the following is old news:

  • The TSA has installed over 380 full body imaging scanners in over 68 airports in the United States. Many more are to come. There are two problems with this. The majority of these scanners use an x-ray technology known as "backscatter." Some studies show that backscatter scanning is safe. Other studies indicate very different results. Look, there's a reason why the dentist gives you a lead shield to cover yourself before getting your teeth x-rayed: overexposure to x-rays can lead to cancer, including a higher risk of leukemia in unborn children. The second issue, fortunately, is not a risk to one's health, but it is a risk to one's privacy. These full body imaging scanners virtually unclothe the individual going through the machine. We are told that the person viewing the passenger is in another room and does not actually see the person. But obviously, the images are associated with your ID, and there's no set indication as to how long these images are being kept, where they're being kept, and who has access to them.

  • Last week, airline pilot unions began recommending that pilots "politely decline" the use of full body scanners. Of course this begs the question—if the pilots are advised not to subject themselves to what could be dangerous radiation, why should the rest of us?

  • If one "politely declines" the full body scanner, the individual is forced to undergo a full "enhanced" pat-down by a TSA representative. This involves a total stranger touching you with the front of his or her hands in places that previously should be known only to a physician or a spouse. The TSA representative will likely place his or her hands inside your clothing and no part of your person is off limits.

If you've been living in a cave and are unaware of all this, there are thousands of recent articles and reports of this on the internet. Here is one from a reputable source: "Screening Protests Grow As Holiday Crunch Looms." The entire article is worthy of your time, but pay special attention to these parts before you fly during the holidays:

On Nov. 1, screeners began using a far more invasive form of procedure for all pat-downs — in which women’s breasts and all passengers’ genital areas are patted firmly. Since that change happened to coincide with the accelerated introduction of the body scanning machines, many fliers began expressing their dismay on blogs, fanning anti-T.S.A. reactions.

A traveler named John Tyner, for example, posted a detailed account of being detained at the San Diego airport when he tried to leave after declining a body scan. Mr. Tyner recorded the encounter, in which person who appeared to be a T.S.A. screener insisted that he undergo a “groin check.” That account, and that indelicate term, quickly went viral.

I’m getting a lot of questions about the new security regime, including some pointed ones from women. Do the imagers, for example, detect sanitary napkins? Yes. Does that then necessitate a pat-down? The T.S.A. couldn’t say. Screeners, the T.S.A. has said, are expected to exercise some discretion.

This issue became personal for us on November 6, when I saw Kathy off to the airport for a conference she was attending. I had already expressed my concerns to her in regard to the scanners, so she opted for the "enhanced" pat-down, not realizing how invasive it would actually be. There was no curtained room, but in the middle of the security area at the Louisville airport, the TSA employee touched her in ways that in any other context would be considered wholly inappropriate, tantamount to sexual harassment. The TSA employee ran her hand inside my wife's sweatshirt and repeatedly in the cleavage of her breasts. Yes, the employee conducting the pat down was female, but does that actually matter anymore? [Note: I've offered a correction and clarification of this incident below in the comments. Please read that, too, for the full story of what took place.]

This is an extreme and outrageous invasion of privacy. If you travel by air, you have the choice of subjecting yourself to potentially dangerous radiation or the humiliation of being searched in ways that have previously been reserved for criminals and victims of inappropriate sexual contact. There's no "good" choice here.

Many will argue that such extreme measures will save lives. Terrorism will be prevented. Really? No one seems to be certain that any of these stricter measures would have prevented Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the now-infamous "underwear bomber" from boarding an airplane. These measures certainly wouldn't have prevented the bombs hidden in toner cartridges a few weeks ago.

Where do we draw the line? In an essay written in the spirit of Jonathan Swift last week, one of my students suggested that the only logical next step for the TSA to take is to simply require all airline passengers to fly completely in the nude. I guess that would work, right? It would certainly save lives.

Look, barriers in the middle of interstates are designed to prevent vehicles from crossing into opposing traffic. Yet, accidents of this kind still happen. So why not construct twenty-foot walls in the median? That would certainly save lives, and perhaps no one would ever cross the median again! Studies have proven that a speed limit of 55 mph saves fuel and reduces fatalities, so why do we insist on having limits at greater speeds? We do this because there's an invisible line of risk that we're willing to cross for the sake of convenience. But we know when to stop. We don't build 20 foot high safety partitions on the highway. We don't allow cars to drive at 120 mph. We understand that's crossing too far over the line.

And that's exactly what the TSA has done. They've crossed the line in potentially dangerous and decidedly invasive ways.

There's already a call for November 24, 2010, to be "National Opt-Out Day" [warning: graphic "backscatter" images can be seen at linked website] in which travelers on the busiest travel day of the year respectfully decline the invasive procedures being called for by the TSA since November 1. The organizer has stated the reasons for this protest on his website (emphasis added):

It's the day ordinary citizens stand up for their rights, stand up for liberty, and protest the federal government's desire to virtually strip us naked or submit to an "enhanced pat down" that touches people's breasts and genitals in an aggressive manner.  You should never have to explain to your children, "Remember that no stranger can touch or see your private area, unless it's a government employee, then it's OK."

The goal of National Opt Out Day is to send a message to our lawmakers that we demand change.  We have a right to privacy and buying a plane ticket should not mean that we're guilty until proven innocent.  This day is needed because many people do not understand what they consent to when choosing to fly.

Honestly, I don't know if any of this is going to help. These body imaging scanners have been paid for and there are another 700 or so on order. This is a juggernaut that will be very difficult to slow down, let alone stop. But that doesn't mean we have to sit still for it. Therefore, I'd like to propose...

  1. If possible, opt out completely. That is, don't fly if you don't have to. Air travel has been a wonderful convenience, but it's no longer worth the effort, the risk, or invasion of privacy. Trains, cars, and busses—there are other alternatives. Plus, alternatives will hit the airline industry—which has stayed pretty mum on the new security rules so far—right where it hurts.

  2. Arrive at the airport even earlier. Before 9/11, we were told to arrive at the airport an hour before our flights. After 9/11, we were told to arrive two hours before our flights. Now, thanks to "enhanced" pat-downs (regardless of whether you opt out or not), it's going to take even longer to get through security.

  3. Always opt out of the body scanners. Do it especially on November 24, but really you should opt out every time you fly. Opt out for safety reasons. Opt out on principle.

  4. Understand that opting out of body imaging requires you to undergo the humiliation of "enhanced" pat-downs. According to the TSA, especially in light of the recent incident with John Tyner, once you begin the screening process, you must complete it or potentially face legal consequences.

  5. Be polite, but don't stand for inappropriate contact. You're not a criminal for wanting to fly, and you shouldn't be treated like one. If you are touched in any manner that is inappropriate, be certain to write down the TSA employee's name and file the appropriate harassment report. Of course, because the TSA holds ultimate power over you while you are in security, you might find it more opportune to file any harassment report after you've arrived at your destination.

I realize that terrorism is a very real problem in the world. But in response, do we risk our health? Do we risk our privacy? Do we risk civility? When and where do we draw the line, and say, "Enough is enough"?


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Reader Comments (33)

Thank you for writing on this topic. I've been posting about it everyday on my Facebook page. The new rules are absolutely outrageous. We have lost our freedom to fly without being sexually assaulted (by photos or groping). Twenty years ago, this would have been a sign of a dystopian society.

Fortunately, I no longer travel much so I can boycott the airlines without difficulty. The U.S. constitution says there must be probable cause for someone to be searched in the manner they are searching. I strongly encourage everyone to avoid flying if at all possible until this blatant unconstitutional activity is stopped.

The sad thing is that these new measure will have zero effect on airline terrorism. So we lose our freedom for nothing.

November 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJohn

Thanks for your comment, John. I agree.

On my Facebook Page, one of my commenters posted this link which is quite startling:

November 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterR. Mansfield

I'm flying next week. I'm totally ticked off by some of the things I've read in the last several weeks. One lady of about 65 years of age was not allowed to take her personal belongings into the enhanced pat down area after her artificial knee set off the metal detector (this was not a matter of her refusing a "naked scan"), her iPad was swiped even though she repeatedly asked if her belongings could be brought to her, and the TSA kept telling her to simmer down about her purse and belongings. After realizing her iPad was stolen and requesting to speak to a TSA supervisor, she was met with a shrug, and a "whatareyougonnado?" this is the new normal attitude. I've already told my husband we are going early to the airport. I will not agree to a naked body scan. I'm not a criminal and I won't be scanned like I'm guilty for flying. I will opt out of a scan if chosen for one. I can just imagine that somewhere some idiot is thinking of the next thing that our country will react to, such as an exploding tooth and we'll all have to say "ahhh" as we pass through security and spit out our gum. And even though it won't make us more safe, the terror thugs will have won another death of liberty by a million little humiliations and the swelling sense that we are helpless against our own government as much as any faceless terror is just as much a victory as getting through security with a bomb up your bum. And Rick, I'm really sorry to know that Kathy had to go through that, but your information has me thinking... I'm contemplating what's the best "pat down" outfit to wear to the airport because I'm prone to wearing dresses for comfort, but well, gee, should a TSA person run their hand up my dress to access my breasts, that would create quite a show for everyone!!! Arggggghhhhh!!!

November 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMaleah

Maleah, by point of clarification, if your airport has one of the new imaging scanner, it's not that you'll be chosen for one--it's the default device in use now. You can opt out, but in doing so, you are choosing the "enhanced" pat down.

Also, in some cases, they're still performing full pat downs on individuals that go through the scanners if anything looks suspicious. Everyone should opt out of the scanners and then file a complaint in regard to any pat down that is inappropriate.

November 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterR. Mansfield

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by R. Mansfield, R. Mansfield. R. Mansfield said: My newest post on This Lamp: "The New Rules of Flying" [...]

Bush Intercontinental, IAH, one of the first to get them... Great. Just great. Fantastic. We'll be off with a grope.

November 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMaleah

Another development. Religious "excuses" won't get you out of screening. How can this possibly be acceptable for Muslim women?

November 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJohn

Yes, this has gotten ridiculous. I'm nervous about the radiation. To me the bigger problem is the politically correct issue of not profiling.

November 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPWade

Wow. Thanks for the heads up. It looks like this list is being kept up to date. It shows airports and the scanners that they have

November 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJ. J.

The November 14th episode of Le Show has some very compelling information about the effects of radiation. You can hear it here:

Everyone should be concerned (to put it mildly) about the radiation.

Also, I hope everyone also understands the groping can be under the clothes.

November 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

* the radiation, from the scanners

Essentially, these things have been through no evaluation for their medical effects.

November 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

Profiling works. That's how the Israelis do it. They have the most strict airport security in the world and they don't sexually assault you.

I went through Israel's airport security a few years ago. I must have fit their profile for a German skinhead (as I have short hair and facial features some have called "Aryan-looking"). They pulled me out of line and interrogated me for about 20 minutes. I understood it was necessary and this is how they do things. But they never put a finger on me. I was not scanned with a machine essentially rendering me naked or touched in any manner.

If Israel can do it (with a 100% effective track record), why can't we?

November 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJohn

It's now evident that there's a pretty clear money trail.

Last night I saw a segment on Anderson Cooper regarding the involvement of Michael Chertoff, former secretary of Homeland Security and co-author of the Patriot Act.

Chertoff has been one of the leading proponents of these full body imaging scanners.

Since leaving public service, Chertoff has formed his own security firm, the Chertoff Group. One of the Chertoff's clients is Rapiscan Systems, which is one of only two companies that build and sell these scanners.

Keep in mind also that the TSA is under Homeland Security's umbrella.

See Cooper's segment here:

I believe it's fairly clear that the move to these devices is much more about money than it is about safety. Obviously, in terms of the potential danger of these machines, safety seems to be the last thing on anyone's mind.

November 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterR. Mansfield

I've always followed the unwritten rule of blogging that I don't alter content in my posts after the fact—beyond grammatical and typographical corrections—even if I've been incorrect on an issue. However, often following this unwritten blogging etiquette, I have used strikethroughs of incorrect information with corrected information clearly displayed (usually in a different color) underneath. Other times, I've offered corrections and clarifications in the comments. Hopefully, this promotes a sense of honesty and transparency among my readers who may be inclined at times to actually take seriously something I've said :-)

I hope my readers would believe that I would never knowingly misrepresent any situation. No one has challenged me on my description of the incident experienced by my wife at Louisville's airpot a week and a half ago. Therefore, I would like to offer both a clarification and a correction to what I described in the spirit of honesty rather than having to later respond to any accusation that I've distorted the facts.

This correction to the account comes from a discussion Kathy and I had over dinner last night after she read my post.

The issue over full body imaging scanners and "enhanced" pat downs only became a major issue in the news over this past weekend. Nevertheless, I had been aware of these new imaging scanners being implemented in airports before Kathy was to fly to Washington DC on November 6. I mentioned these to her in a discussion we had before she went to the airport. I told her that these new scanners were quite revealing (I didn't mention anything about the radiation risks as at the time I was not certain of the technology used in them) and that she may be faced with the choice of going through one at some point between her initial and return flights.

I mentioned in that discussion that in the way I understood it, if a person did not wish to undergo the scan from the full body imager, he or she could opt for a traditional pat down. Keep in mind that this was a few days before I'd heard of the "enhanced" pat down that had already gone into effect on November 1, five days before my wife's flight.

Here is the main part of my account where I was mistaken: the Louisville airport (SDF) does not yet have the full body imaging scanners that use "backscatter" technology. What is true, however, is that Kathy was, in fact, subjected to the "enhanced" pat down just as I described above.

Evidently, Kathy got pulled from the line "randomly," probably because she was wearing a sweat shirt and sweat pants, which evidently is cause for suspicion these days (supposedly, it's easier to smuggle contraband in sweats).

While she expected the normal pat down that TSA officials have given in the past, she was not prepared for the incident that I described in the post above, that is the so-called enhanced pat down in which one's privacy is grossly invaded and the recipient is treated like a common criminal, presumed guilty before proven innocent. Let me be clear: nothing that I described in that part of the account is inaccurate.

Being subjected to "enhanced" pat down bothered Kathy so much that she opted to go through the full body scanners at Reagan International Airport on her way home rather than go through the humiliation of another act of violation at the hands of a stranger, that is, a TSA official.

Kathy made the choice to go through the full-body imaging scanner despite the fact that both of her parents have had cancer (her father died of it when she was three) because at the moment, it seemed like the less invasive procedure.

You see the choice here, don't you? You have the choice of going through full body scanners and subjecting yourself to potentially harmful radiation, or you can choose not to. But if you choose not to, you will be punished in a very physical way with the "alternate," physically invasive procedure.

You know, if my doctor touches me in sensitive, normally "off-limit" areas, at least he has had years of medical training and experience. It's not that a medical professional is not beyond personal perversion, but at least I have the choice of stopping him and saying no.

You don't have this choice with TSA officials who may very well be professional or may have been on the job for a day.

Accounts are coming in from everywhere about abuse. Here's one I read this morning:

"I recently had a conversation...with a pilot whose 18-year-old daughter was chosen for a naked full-body scan. She told her Dad after going through the process that the screener had said to his colleague through the headset: 'We have a real beauty coming through.'

The pilot was outraged, but had to rush off to catch his flight."

There's no excuse for this kind of treatment. Don't stand by and do nothing. Opt out. Speak up. Be willing to say "No."

November 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterR. Mansfield

See Ed Stetzer's "Four Reasons You Should Resist the New TSA Security Procedures (and How You Can)"

November 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterR. Mansfield" rel="nofollow">Mandarin language take on the news. Note the kung-fu wielding nun and the Federal employee lapdance.

November 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDoug

This is not true. El-Al's security works as well as it does precisely because it does not engage in racial profiling. Rather, security assessment is done on an individualized basis by highly trained and well-paid security personnel, and it's based on behavioral profiling. Thus a white guy with a European name like "Smith" and a Yemen stamp in his passport, or an elderly Hispanic woman who gives shifty answers to the battery of questions about why one is traveling, will face tougher scrutiny and extra checks compared to a young Arab man whose passport does not indicate travel to suspicious places and who answers the security questions with coherence.

Israel can do this because (A) It is willing to pay one-third more in taxes than America - you really do get what you pay for in all walks of life; and (B) El-Al carries very few passengers, so they can all be subjected to individualized, in-depth screenings. For comparison, the average U.S. airline carries as many passengers every two weeks as El-Al carries in a year.

(Also, Israel's track record is not 11 percent; El-Al has suffered numerous hijackings and other attacks through the years. There's no disputing the very high quality of El-Al's security, but the record is not perfect.)

The massive practical problems with racial profiling are so obvious that it's almost a relief that so few Americans seem to realize them. Clearly, most of us don't think like a terrorist, which is a good thing. But the hole in any profiling strategy is big enough to fly a hijacked plane through, and it's one that has been exploited by terrorists every time a variety of profiling has been attempted, going back at least to the Algerian War. Any kind of profiling tells the enemy exactly what we're not looking for, and therefore how to avoid scrutiny; and it reduces the profiler's vigilance against threats he does not already expect.

Among the 9/11 hijackers, for example, were several who could have passed for softspoken white Europeans. None of the post-9/11 would-be plane bombers have been Arabs, and most haven't even had Muslim-sounding names. Shoe-bomber Richard Reid? Half-white, half-Jamaican native-born Brit. Underwear bomber? Black African with an MBA. Terrorist groups across the world have used women and children to carry weapons and even detonate bombs when profiling has been applied to men. Simply speaking, the moment we announce to the world through words or actions that elderly grandmothers won't be subjected to the same level of security screening as 20-something Arab men, terrorists will start recruiting light-skinned old women for their airplane missions. Exactly that has happened in the past to the French in Algeria, to the Israelis in the West Bank and the Sinai, and to the Indians in Kashmir (it also characterizes drug cartel recruiting patterns in areas of narco-violence).

Bottom line: the notion that profiling makes Israel's airlines safe is a falsehood, both because Israel does not engage in profiling and because where profiling has been instituted, it has made the profiler more vulnerable to attack, not less.

November 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterScott

I should add this anecdote: an acquaintance of mine flew with his son to Israel on El-Al a couple of years back. He was wearing a green Washington Nationals cap, and he and his son were subjected to heightened scrutiny because of the cap, since green is the symbol of Hamas and the Nationals' curly-W logo looked to the screener like it might be Arabic writing. (His story made the papers locally.) If you've ever seen a photo of a Hamas rally in Gaza or wherever, they're all wearing green caps with Arabic slogans written on them. Anyway, it illustrates how the Israeli security system is based on the particular conduct of the individual - such as trying to board an Israeli flight wearing what kind of looks like a Hamas hat! - not his apparent racial or other features.

November 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterScott

You know those guys are keeping a photo album of their favorites.

November 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

David, based upon what I know of a couple of our mutual friends, who years ago worked in photo processing, and kept a private album of carefully selected duplicate photos, I have no doubt you're right.

And someone might easily say, "But what's to look at with those images?"

But if images aren't kept to be ogled, I am certain some are kept to be mocked.

November 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterR. Mansfield

Well, the story is true. :-) Whether profiling works may be another matter.

November 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJohn" rel="nofollow">TSA checkpoint sign

November 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDoug
November 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDoug
November 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDoug

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