Thursday, November 18, 2010

Skirting (Or Kilting) the TSA Issue

I should preface this post by saying that I am not a frequent flyer. If you consider a round trip to be one instance, I can count all of my lifetime plane trips on one hand. Nor do I have plans to get on an airplane any time before next June, by which time I am sincerely hoping this whole pat-down thing will no longer be happening. I have...issues...with being touched by complete strangers.

The TSA, of course, is the Transportation Security Administration. As you may have heard by now, they're stepping up the already-stringent security measures being taken at airports. The official statement (dated October 28th) is as follows:

"TSA is in the process of implementing new pat-down procedures at checkpoints nationwide as one of our many layers of security to keep the traveling public safe. Pat-downs are one important tool to help TSA detect hidden and dangerous items such as explosives. Passengers should continue to expect an unpredictable mix of security layers that include explosives trace detection, advanced imaging technology, canine teams, among others."

Oh. Goody. Maybe I'll start planning on taking the bus to my goddaughter's wedding. Or if I leave right after Christmas, I could probably walk there in time.

The pat-down procedure in and of itself is not wholly bad, I suppose...well, okay, that's probably one of those lies we tell ourselves to reduce personal panic. But what's worse is some of the stories that are coming out about how TSA employees are handling the matter. Some of the reports make the experience sound like it almost qualifies as assault. For example, there was the recent incident where a three-year-old girl, upset at the idea of her beloved teddy bear being put through the x-ray machine, managed to set off a detector with her tantrum and had to be patted down. A three-year-old? Really? What's more, she turned out to be the daughter of Steve Simon, a television reporter, who managed to film the incident and then reported it on his news program. You can see part of it here.

As I mentioned, I have a problem with being manhandled touched by complete strangers, and that's just because I'm a fussy little git. I can only imagine how these new procedures must be upsetting to someone who has a legitimate reason to not want to be touched, e.g. a survivor of assault or sexual abuse. Newsweek brought up this very issue in a recent article. For a specific example, they linked to the blog post of John Tyner, who is now under investigation after walking away from a screening that was, in his opinion, sexual assault. I'm kind of horrified.

Part of the problem seems to be that they're not too strictly worried about who's doing the patting. According to the blog of the ACLU, the TSA has no time to train their screeners. Their source of information is a little hard to refute, too -- it's the recent report compiled by the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security. Among the more disturbing bits are where one employee admits that some workers are encouraged to just sign the statement that they received their reading materials and training without ever having done so.

Is the pat-down absolutely required? Sadly, the pat-down is apparently the lesser of two evils. The alternative involves being scanned by something called a backscatter machine, which essentially takes naked pictures of you. The ACLU describes your choices as being "between a virtual strip-search and a really aggressive grope." They encourage concerned Americans to stand up for their rights not to be felt up by TSA employees, and tell Congress exactly how they feel. I encourage you to do it too.

In addition to sending your concerns to Congress, however, you might want to consider participating in another form of protest. If you have to fly in the near future -- and many people do, what with American Thanksgiving being only a week away -- you can be part of National Opt-Out Day on November 24th. You opt out of the backscatter scan, which the TSA acknowledges is your right, but then are subjected to the pat-down. You should be prepared for that. You should also insist that the pat-down take place in public, so everyone can see what's being done to you.

If you're male, you can add a fun little extra something-something to your pat-down by pretending to be Scottish. Inspired by a comment from Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, some supporters of National Opt-Out Day are encouraging men to wear kilts when they fly on November 24th, and to wear them regimental-style -- that is, sans underwear. You have to admit, if the pat-down gets a bit too friendly, that's one way to surprise the employees.

And maybe the TSA would do well to remember the words of the esteemed Benjamin Franklin, who once remarked, "Those who would give up essential Liberty to purchase a little temporary Safety deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."

Special thanks to my friend Rachel, who directed me to the ACLU blog, and to Debbie Tenzer of Do One Nice Thing, who alerted me to the kilted protest.


  1. I've traveled enough to be stop at every "random" searches. I was not happy about that.

  2. I can believe it, tribalwolf! I can't imagine anyone being happy about that!

  3. I don't really see that the TSA is all that necessary anyway. The only time anybody finds any actual bombs are on the plane or after it's landed. I wish security could be run by the airlines themselves; then people can choose how much liberty they care to trade for so-called safety.

    Also, this:

  4. I read an article within the last week that said images have leaked; apprently they're just ghostly-esque blobs of light and all, which is no big deal "per se" due to a lack of identifiers, but that does not bode well for the new and more advanced scanning system... If they lied about those machines not having the capability to store the images let alone be taken from the machine.

    The article also stated that yes, in the event of a person wearing baggy articles of clothing they were now permitted to do under-the-waistband patdowns. RIDICULOUS and awful.

    I agree that they must be super careful with the kinds of people they allow to perform these scans and patdowns, the potential for abuse is enormous. On the other hand, I imagine all the "normal" people that work for the TSA and how they probably feel uncomfortable and don't like feeling you up anymore than you like them feeling you up.


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