‘Patriot Probes’ at the airport

Advanced security measures sacrifices travelers’ liberty and dignity

This past Thanksgiving I, like many of you, passed through Boston Logan Airport in order to get home. Prior to my trip, I had been looking forward with a mixture of giddiness and dread to the opportunity of being subjected to an “enhanced pat down,” an experience I hoped would be illuminating, if not mortifying.

The reality turned out to be rather anticlimactic. After psyching myself up, preparing for unannounced intrusions and discourteous groping, the TSA agent who examined me treated me with as much dignity and respect as the situation allowed.

However, this is not to say that the process itself is not utterly violating.

First of all, I was surprised to find that there was no policy in place requiring pat-downs to occur behind some sort of visual barrier. Apparently, you have to specifically request this “special treatment.” As it happened, I was patted down and had my nether regions examined in front of everyone in line.

I also wonder whether my TSA agent’s politeness was due to stepped up efforts by the TSA to improve etiquette in response to various high-profile embarrassments, including John Tyner’s “Don’t touch my junk or I’ll have you arrested” viral encounter and a case in which a small boy had his shirt removed for closer inspection.

And despite the fact that my body search was decidedly clinical, this does not mean that other searches cannot be abusive. Whenever an authoritative body is given new power at least some of its members will abuse it.

If you think this overly cynical, consider the following: As Dr. Sheila Addison notes in an article for the California National Organization for Women blog, shortly after the attacks of 9/11, reports started coming out about women with large breasts being singled out for “random” searches by TSA agents who touched them inappropriately and/or made rude comments about their bodies.

In fact, all sorts of marginalized bodies (those of trans and disabled persons and people of color, for instance) have been abused for the past decade without a ruckus being raised.

The one change between then and now, Addison notes, is that now white, able-bodied, and gender normative men are being violated, and thus the issue is suddenly deserving of national scrutiny.

Further, simply because I was reasonably comfortable being touched and examined the way I was does not mean that other travelers cannot have legitimate reasons to avoid these searches at all costs. Women deal enough with issues of bodily autonomy elsewhere to go through more egregious affronts at the airport. Many survivors of rape and other forms of sexual assault are more or less forced to stay home considering their other option to possibly trigger a panic attack or post-traumatic episode.

Of course, there is an alternative: one could simply enter the scanner like the vast majority of travelers. Like the helpful TSA notices say, the images are viewed remotely and “are not saved or transmitted.” Whether or not they actually have the capability to do so (and thus have the possibility of being abused) is unclear to me, but the issue has been debated vigorously by my fellow opinion writers Keith Yost G and Nils Molina ’13.

Yost also showed that the dose of radiation the body is subjected to by the machines is beyond minuscule, comparing the dose to the amount you would get from eating a banana. But to me, this is not sufficient reason to accept these scanners as part of our typical travel routine.

For one, they are a rather stunning invasion of privacy. While I concede that the millimeterwave scanners show only highly pixilated images, the backscatter X-ray images, though still not exactly Polaroids, are very much pictures of your naked body.

Many people have legitimate concerns about allowing other seeing under their clothes — that is, concerns that go beyond another person seeing you naked without your consent. As my parents pointed out to me, these machines reveal knowledge of a person’s medical history, such as the dermal record of a past mastectomy, that would cost them a fortune in medical malpractice for revealing.

So what is the government trying to accomplish with these machines? Noam Chomsky might suggest that it fits into a pattern of highly predictable responses to public scares. Just as after 9/11 new constitution-defying laws were passed under the guise of national security, so again is the government using the specter of the underwear bomber to further encroach on our rights.

But even as far as reactionary responses go, this one seems particularly irrational and ineffectual. First of all, the bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab did not even pass through United States airport security. He came to the U.S. from Nigeria via Holland. What’s the use of these new measures if travelers from abroad are not even subjected to them?

What’s more, not even every American airport has them. I walked through them at Logan but on my way back to MIT through Chicago’s Midway Airport there was a curious dearth of scanners. (That didn’t stop TSA agents from pulling aside an octogenarian with prosthetic knees for further examination.)

And even if Abdulmutallab did pass through the scanners, officials have only wavering confidence that the machines would have detected the plastic explosive in his pants. Even more asinine is how Adam Savage (of Mythbusters fame) boarded his plane before he realized that he had been carrying on his person “two 12-inch steel razor blades.”

All of this ridiculousness is not lost on the rest of the world, mind you. On YouTube you can find skits from Japanese television programs ridiculing our security measures as arbitrary, impotent, and all too frequently an avenue for sexual abuse.

Ultimately, the issue comes down to what liberties we are willing to sacrifice for security. I’ll spare you the Benjamin Franklin quote, but ask yourself how far you are willing to let your government go before it becomes unacceptable.

Personally, I would prefer to limit the government’s power to invade my privacy; there is simply too much room for abuse and surreptitious expansion of federal control. I shudder to think what will happen when terrorists realize the human body has certain orifices highly amenable to hiding explosives from the gaze of surface-scanning machines. On the plus side, we might get to make up cute new euphemisms: “Patriot Probes,” anyone?