Saturday, 5 February 2011

Groping Redux

In part, I was inspired to start my blog after my first encounter with TSA in November 2010. I was so furious after my first patdown at Los Angeles International Airport that I immediately whipped my laptop out and spent the next two hours at the gate writing about it. I submitted the piece to a newspaper for publication, but newspapers and journals these days are full of the sound and the fury of people disgusted by having their bodies - including their "junk" - patted down in the name of safety.

So I thought I'd give the old journal entry the light of day here. It's interesting to note that on my return trip from Africa, I was groped not only once but TWICE, first in Amsterdam and then in Nashville, TN. In Amersterdam on my way to Nairobi, there were very, very few people stopped for a scan and none at my gate that I saw getting patted down. On my return trip, however, everyone without exception was being scanned to enter my Delta flight to Memphis, and I was again a magnet for the full kaboodle. Watch out for those lady bumps, they might explode!

The danger in all this is that we begin to accept the unacceptable when it becomes routine and normal. Another step down a slippery slope.

I have no problem with the responsibility of government and air carriers to keep us safe. What I object to is the reactionary (and questionable) practice of revealing scans and patting travelers down. The Israelis, who are experts at dealing with potential terrorism, post agents and dogs in their airports. They watch behavior, which makes more sense than targeting the average tourist for a patdown, including the elderly in wheelchairs and young children. Time will show that current TSA procedures are a waste of time and money. If they're effective at all, it's only as a deterrent. Posting well-trained agents and dogs sound like better deterrents than probably unconstitutional body searches. All this may become a moot point as peak oil creeps into our lives, however. Air travel will one day  - all too soon - become a privilege of the wealthy.

Here's the original piece:

11/29/2010 Scanning is NOT an Option

It’s early. Way too early. Why do I never get enough sleep before I travel?
I feel like a warmed-over, stale cuppa something by the time I reach LAX, check my luggage, and head for my Delta gate at 6:51 a.m. for a 9:05 flight. A good thing to be in place ahead of time. Not a good thing if you don’t enjoy dragging yourself out of bed before dawn to crawl into a cold airport shuttle, and then to a long wait on a hard plastic seat.

Oh, but let’s backtrack a bit.

I knew my day wasn’t going well when the TSA security agent standing on the way, far side of the metal detectors took a good, long look at me in the security line. One of those eyeballs on sticks kind of looks.

At first I think it‘s because I carry my laptop in a backpack – ooh, ooh, the big, black, suicide-bomber backpack. Or maybe it's because my handbag looks too heavy because I have a full water bottle in it. The ozone level is so high around the City of Angels that I always feel thirsty. I yank it out and suck the water down in one long pull as I walk past a recycling bin before dumping my shoes, carry-on, and laptop onto the conveyor.

The guy keeps his eyes glued on me. When it’s finally my turn to walk through the metal detector, he channels me into no-man’s land between two scanners, slick as you please.

“Female assist on 4A, female assist on 4 A,” he says into his walkie-talkie with a bit of self-importance.

Female assist? It dawns on my sleep-deprived, senior mind: Don’t you get patted down only if you refuse a scan? If I was the jaw-dropping type, mine would have hit the floor.

Now I know what farm animals in the slaughter line feel like. Myth #1 - you choose a patdown if you refuse a scan. I hadn’t refused anything yet.

Never mind recent news reports in which people say they didn’t see anyone get scanned or groped on their trip through America’s airports. At LAX the process is so quick and unobtrusive that most people behind you don’t even notice, unless your female assist doesn’t turn up in a hot flash.

Besides, myth # 2 is that you’re holding up the line. Actually, you’re channeled in-between lines into a quadrangle between two scanners. Then, naturally self-conscious that you hit the unlucky jackpot, you twist, turn, and gaze around, wondering if TSA is going to watch your handbag with cash, credit cards, and passport, your plucked laptop, or your carry-on bag, since your stuff just went through security without you.

Why the heck does the male TSA agent call for female assistance about 10 times? How long can this ordeal last?

I figure it doesn’t hurt to throw a small, polite fit.

“I want a scan,” I say, when the young female agent finally appears from wherever she was probably been patting down someone else. An elderly woman in a wheelchair is waiting behind me, though she was there first.

When my female assist agent finally rushes up, I insist on going ahead because my belongings are hanging out on the end of the conveyor belt where other, luckier, and less karmically bereft passengers are collecting their gear.

“Why are you patting me down?”

“You walked through the metal detector and into holding. We can’t scan you now, you’ll have to go through the line. Besides, these –” the agent waved her blue-gloved hands at the scanners, aren’t working.”

“But WHY am I being patted down?”

“You’re wearing a skirt and jacket.”

I look down at my long, form-fitting knit skirt and short jacket. The outfit is so tight I could barely conceal a band-aid. I may as well have been wearing a bikini, like the highly-publicized young lady who went through an LAX metal detector a couple of days before. I wore the get-up from LAX to London last fall. When you’re traveling for over 30 hours (my kids and I had to ride the Tube and later the Arriva trains to southwest Wales), you really don’t want to wear jeans or anything that binds, because you’ll feel every little seam and bump.


“That’s a point we look for.”

“And all these people,” I wave my hand at the line of people collecting their shoes and gear from the bins ahead of me, all decked out in baggy jeans or tight jeans topped with heavy sweaters, generously cut long-sleeve collared shirts, and sometimes tight or baggy layers of knit shirts and sweaters. Some even wore bulky winter coats, scarves, and gloves, “just sail on through and yet they could more easily conceal things than me?”

“Oh, no,” she said. “We pick people out at random.”

By type of clothing, at random. Hmm.

“I want a scan.”

By now, my short little fuss attracts a third agent, a young male who looks pained at my logic. Damn straight, his face agrees. He shuffles from foot to foot. “You want a scan? You’ll have to collect your things and go back into another line if you want a scan.”

The female agent looks confused. “You can’t have a scan. You don’t have a choice. Well, you could go back, but you’re here. Do you want a scan or not?”

“When’s your flight?” The male agent glances at his watch.

“9:05.” I have over two hours and my gate is visible just beyond security. But I want to put TSA through as many paces as they put me through. At least they care when I have to board my flight. I’d read about some rough treatment by TSA agents in CNN news reports. Rudeness, theft of personal belongings from privacy rooms, direct quotes from the TSA hierarchy that security was more important than missing a flight.

“Plenty of time if you want to go back.” He looked uncomfortable, as though no one had ever collected their things and started over before.

I glare at them both, just a little glare, not enough to get me into more hot water.

“It’s not that bad,” he said. “A patdown only takes a few seconds.”

I snivel. “Why does the world think you only get patted down if you refuse a scan? That’s the word on the street and in news reports. “Here I stand, not refusing a scan, and you’re patting me down.”

“Ma’am,” the female said, “it’s random security.”

The second male agent nods. “What do you want?”

“I just want to get on my flight, obviously.” I look the female in the eye. “You said it was because I’m wearing a skirt. It’s long, but it isn’t exactly big and fluffy.” I sigh. “Well, go ahead.”

She brightens, and the male agent takes a step back. “Hold your arms out, please.”

I do, but I don’t like it one bit. It actually feels more threatening than when I was pulled from a line in pre-metal detector days at the Kingston, Jamaica airport to a privacy room for a much more thorough pat-down than I get here at home during a war. Since they weren’t looking for explosives in 1989, it could only have been a drug search. I was amused because why would anyone in their right mind try to smuggle anything through international customs? Your chances were probably better to stash contraband in your checked luggage. Besides, there were far more bohemian-looking people than me leaving Kingston. That time, I wore a little knit mini-dress with ankle-length leggings. Sandals. No undies. When the attractive black female agent patted me down, there was definitely nada to grope but bony me, 120 pounds dripping wet. The experience left me giggling. While she had me cornered, some smuggler probably got away bigtime. I didn’t even carry the legal allotment of Jamaican rum in my checked lugguage.

But the experience of having my more jiggly and senior 135 pounds patted down didn’t make me giggle.

For one thing, the TSA agent didn’t do the patdown as publicized. No checking anything front or back, just down from shoulders to torso to the sides of my legs, then kinda sorta up the inside of my legs, bumping with one finger for a split-second my pelvic bone, where my left junk would be if I had any. I could have hidden lots of stuff in places she didn't check.

Dozens of people continued swarming unpatted and unscanned around me, all, according to TSA, potential terrorists. I didn’t appreciate being singled out for nothing one bit.

And that’s the crux of the problem. How much energy is wasted on random searches? When does security become tyranny? How much privacy and freedom do you give up in order to be secure? How many people with contraband have TSA arrested or pulled out of flight lines since starting the porno scans and patdowns?

The only one I’ve heard of so far is the young man in San Diego who didn’t want to be nuked, and didn’t want his junk touched either. He was willing to give up a holiday to fight for YOUR rights.

But I have a heckuva lot hinging around this international trip. I guess if you want to avoid having your lady junk touched, it’s better to wear pants. If you must fly and your trip is too expensive to walk away from, expect to get nuked or groped whether you like it or not.

It doesn’t make me feel one bit safer, because there’s always a way to get around each new security measure.
The best thing about my experience? Questioning authority. If I was younger, I might have been yanked out of line for giving TSA the lip. It felt damn good to be a cranky old lady.

I question the rationality of anyon who thinks it’s okay to have their junk touched without just cause. Anyone who says x-rays and groping makes them feel secure hasn’t confronted the nature of their own impermanence. Living is risky. Everything changes. We’re all going to die and some of us will die inconveniently and tragically. Nothing will ever totally guarantee public or personal safety.

I reach my hard plastic seat more morning-impaired than ever. Now that I’ll probably exhibit a mild case of PTSD every time I’m in an airport, I can take at least comfort in the fact that I made the experience as hard on TSA as TSA made it on me.

I look over at the security line. They’ve just channelled a young lady in sweater and jeans into no-man’s land. Three women in a row.

Tag, you’re it. You decide.

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