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Entries in TSA (1)


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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