Friday, May 27, 2011

My TSA Patdown, Why It Matters, and Why It Doesn't

On March 21, 2011, I flew DirectAir flight D1-2802 out of Punta Gorda, FL, returning home to Worcester, MA after a week in sunny and fabulous Venice, Florida with my family.
Pictured: sun, fabulousity
Punta Gorda is a small but busy airport.  When I arrived for my flight, the ticketing area was awash in chaos as they tried to ticket, screen and board two DirectAir flights and I believe one additional Allegiant flight.  Whenever I have flown out of Punta Gorda, it's been this way, but I think they have some kind of in-house wizards, because they always get it sorted out and everyone through security and onto their flights just in time.

This time, despite having literally nothing metal on my but my underwires, I kept setting off the metal detector.  I'm doing all right in the chestular region but dude...not that well. In any case, I went over to the little screening corral and waited for a nice TSA lady to come over to give me a patdown.  She was excellent and slightly apologetic (though she didn't really seem to believe me when I said the only metal on me was my underwire; I'm with ya, Nice TSA Lady!), and started with explaining how the process would go. She explained that she would be patting me down, with her palms in most places and with the backs of her hands in certain places: under my breasts, between my legs, and under my butt.  She did all of this pretty quickly, and with good humor.  She also ran her hand along my waistband, which for some reason was the most awkward part for me - I think because it was hands inside my clothing instead of over the top.

My overall feeling is that it was...fine.  The woman at Punta Gorda was extremely professional and the explanation of how everything would go before she set a hand on me was reassuring.  That way, I knew what to expect.  I did not find it bothersome.  However, had I been a victim of sexual assault or abuse, or less comfortable with my body, I do think it would have been extremely stressful and potentially traumatic, particularly if I was a victim of assault at the hands of an authority figure.  It is also worth noting that I was wearing jeans.  Had I been wearing a skirt, dress, or even thinner pants, I would be less sanguine about the process.  I also lucked out and was on the walkway to the plane behind some nice, chatty ladies who had seen my patdown, who had a lot of questions and gave me the chance to hear what it had looked like from an outsider's perspective.  They both felt that it looked pretty invasive; one was concerned about someone touching the underside of her breasts and both could not believe that the TSA agent went right up to the crotch.  I asked them if watching my patdown had made them uncomfortable, and both said - immediately - that it did.  It certainly does build a certain atmosphere.

I object fundamentally to the TSA patdowns, and to the use of backscatter machines.  I object for two reasons, plus a non-legitimate* reason, that being "it is annoying and I don't think people need MORE reasons to act like idiots in security lines." The first is a minor detail called "the Fourth Amendment," which reads: "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."  I think that's pretty clear - the government doesn't get to rifle through my crap or my body, particularly if I have not done anything wrong.  I don't mind security initiatives, and I do think we should make sure that people can't bring bombs on a plane.  However, the measures currently in place are excessive.  I think the government has a right to make sure that groups of people can do stuff together safely (this is like "peaceably" bit in the First Amendment's right to "peaceably assemble"; you can have an anti-war protest or a pro-gun rights protest, but if you want to have a baby-kicking assembly, that's not okay), and that means that the TSA should be able to look for certain things, particularly explosives.  The locked firewall doors to the cockpit prevent people from assaulting the pilots and thus endangering the entire flight; knife or gun or nothing, if you can't get in, the flight can keep going smoothly and safely.  If, tragically, there was a murder on board, then the murderer - and the witnesses - would be delivered to the first available airport, where they could be tried and imprisoned.  That murder would not endanger the entire flight, as an explosion would.  As far as I can see, there are two main things that shouldn't come on aircraft: loaded guns on a person's body and explosives.  These can be checked for using metal detectors and "puffer" machines, which do not involve seeing your body or touching it.  The puffers (which puff air through a chamber to test for microscopic evidence of gunpowder or explosives; you may recognize this from those little pads they swipe on your carry on, then put in a machine...that machine is a teensy version of the puffer scanners), as I understand them, still have a ways to go in development, but I think they are the most appropriate and acceptable way to ensure safety without violating people's rights.

My Dad, who is a pilot, makes the argument that I am mostly offended by this because I'm used to not having to do it (he also admits that TSA's approach to security is...let's just say misguided, so it's not quite clear cut), and that this kind of security is simply the prerequisite for engaging in a voluntary activity.  This is partially why I would not have an argument against individual airlines performing advanced security like the backscatter machines and patdowns; if the TSA scanned with metal detectors and puffers, then at, say, the United gate, you had to go through a backscatter machine, I wouldn't fly United but I wouldn't object to it either, because it would be United making a choice to have that security standard and not the government.  There is also a problem of how voluntary travel really is; sure, it's optional for me to go to Florida on spring break, but it's not optional for a lot of business people. 

The second reason I object to TSA patdowns is a bit more slippery.  I think that the current procedure feeds into the unrealistic narrative we've been working on since September 11th: the idea that we can somehow be totally safe.  It is dangerous to suggest that there is a way to be entirely safe, because it discourages personal responsibility to pay attention to the world around you and manage your own safety, take your own precautions.  I hope I'm not rocking anyone's world too hard when I say: you will never be totally safe.  In the same way that you could eat nothing but kale and walnuts and run and lift weights and yet drop dead of a heart attack, you could take every precaution, seal yourself into a bulletproof hamster ball, never leave your house and STILL be hit by a car or have a tree fall on you or get shot in your whitebread neighborhood.  Life is chaotic, and suggesting that it can somehow be brought under control is a dangerous business indeed.  These TSA procedures feed into this idea that we can be safe, and that will only make us LESS safe, because we begin to assume that if we just submit to these practices, we'll all be okay, guaranteed.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

* I say non-legitimate here not because I shouldn't feel inconvenienced or be irritated by people in security lines (seriously folks - belts, shoes and metal off, laptop in its own bin.  WHY IS THIS SO DIFFICULT?) but because my interest in not being annoyed is not a valid basis for legality or illegality.

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