I just got back from a business trip requiring me to fly through BWI (Baltimore-Washington International). BWI was one of the first airports in the country to implement the TSA strip-search scanners, but it's the most convenient airport for me. Besides, as the TSA itself tells us in several different places on its website, "advanced imaging technology screening is optional to all passengers."
Many of us on this blog have already discussed the bullshit-o-rama that is airport security, especially the pointless and invasive strip-search scanners. Costing taxpayers billions of dollars, they are the biggest boondoggle to come down the pike in a long time. Like so many of the other procedures we go through at airport checkpoints, they don't make us any safer, they just provide a showy bit of theater in which we all play our parts: we pretend we're actually doing something to protect ourselves from The Terrorists. Because The Terrorists are always On The Verge of Getting Us.
So of course I was prepared to step into my starring role along with everyone else, except that I knew I was going to decline the strip-search scanner.
I was stunned to find the airport so empty at 9:30 in the morning. Security will be a breeze, I thought, though I was still glad I had 70 minutes before my flight. There were four lines open at the checkpoint, with easily a dozen TSA officers on duty, and only about that many passengers as well. A few people walked through the metal detector, collected their things, and went on their way. Then, just before my husband and I stepped up, the officer in my line pulled the strap across the metal detector. (Come to think of it, those straps look just like the ones used at movie theaters and concert halls. Perhaps we could increase the theater factor by making them red velvet ropes -- so much more elegant, don't you think, with the added benefit of making us feel even more like the stars TSA tells us we are!)
I had just gone through the ID check, where they match up your ID with your boarding pass, and I'd been chatting with two of the officers who were oohing and aahing over the ballgown I was carrying in a plastic garment bag. Girls will be girls, you know, even at airport security, though not once you've passed that point. I guess they're allowed to be friendly there but not in the strip area.
Hubby opted to go through the strip-search scanner. I declined. A male officer said, "I don't know why; it's faster and safer." "That's okay," I said, "I have plenty of time before my flight leaves."
A female officer told me to walk through the metal detector -- which I did without dinging anything -- and stand aside.
Okay, let me say that though I don't like the procedures, I still believe that most TSA officers are in a luckless position and are just trying to do their jobs. They probably have to put up with a lot of crap themselves, and I'm not interested in making their jobs any more difficult. I believe in being polite. Deferential but not obsequious. I think if you treat people well, generally they will treat you well in return. So no matter what the situation, I always smile and say "yes, sir" or "yes, ma'am," with a liberal sprinkling of "please" and "thank you" in between. I also clean up after myself, stack the grey plastic bins neatly, including those left laying around by other passengers, and in general try not to be a nuisance. (And I was wearing a clingy jersey dress -- always my policy when I fly, so that it's obvious that I have nothing hidden on me. Hey, it's all I can do to suck in my gut; I sure as hell don't want anything else protruding from my body. Vanitas est securitas.)
I do as I'm told and stand to the side at the checkpoint.
A few more people wander through. Some step into the strip-search scanner; others just pass through the metal detector. There are still four lines open, and still a dozen or so TSA officers on duty.
I'm still waiting.
I shift my weight from one foot to the other, the way you do when you're standing in line at a movie or the checkout counter at the grocery store; ya know, just killing time.
"Don't move," the female TSA officer says to me. "Don't go anywhere."
"Oh, I'm not going anywhere," I say, "I'm staying here."
That should've been my first tip-off. I'm being chastised like a five-year-old in Catholic school, where the nuns ruled with an iron fist. "Don't move."
She puts on those blue latex gloves, which she hadn't been sporting before. Okay, I think, now she's getting ready to pat me down.
Two women walk through the detector. One's metal knee dings the thing. She's questioned for a second and allowed to continue on her way.
After about five or six minutes, I look around. I see something I've never seen at an airport before: there are no passengers. There is no one -- no one -- in the security line. It's empty.
Surely, I think, now that no one is here -- not that it was crowded before -- someone will come to check me.
"Excuse me," I say to my minder, "but is someone going to pat me down?" I add cheerfully, as if this is a game show, "I'm ready!"
"You just wait there for two seconds," she says. "Someone will come when they have time."
"But I've already been --" I begin.
The smackdown is swift. And loud:
"Don't disrespect me! Don't disrespect me! Don't you talk to me like that! I didn't talk to you like that, don't you talk to me like that! Now you just wait there until somebody can get to you!"
You could've heard her a block away. And that, obviously, was the point.
Because shouting "don't disrespect me!" to someone is sorta like asking "when did you stop beating your wife?" or saying "don't be a racist." The presumption of guilt is embedded in the statement. There's no credible comeback (even if I were allowed to talk back, which I wasn't). Clearly, for the benefit of all to hear, she wouldn't have shouted "don't disrespect me!" unless I had disrespected her, right?
Duly chastened, I look down and say nothing.
Most of the TSA officers are standing around doing nothing, because there's nothing to do. There's hardly anybody coming through. By my peripheral vision only -- I don't dare look directly at any of them lest I be accused of being "disrespectful" -- I notice a few of them looking blandly at me. Nobody comes to check me.
Finally, after I wait still more, a TSA agent from the far end of the security checkpoint walks over to me. She smiles the way they've been trained to do and says, "step over here, please."
And finally, finally, I get the pointless pat-down. She asks if I have any sore spots (she was, in fact, polite), and I say I can't lift my left arm because of a chronic injury. She wands and pats every limb from every different angle, my underwire bra keeps dinging the thing, she keeps checking, it keeps dinging, she keeps patting, and on it goes, with even my bare arms and bare feet being wanded every which way but Sunday because, of course, don'tchya know I could have teeny-tiny explosive thingies embedded in my triceps or wedged beneath my toenails.
My head gets wanded but she doesn't go through every strand of hair. One wonders why, since it's only a matter of time before some bozo tries to light his hair on fire and we're all forced to get shaved before we board a plane, as I wrote about here. But then, even if that were to happen, most people would probably go along with it, because, after all, It's For Your Protection. And if we don't, The Terrorists Win.
When I'm finally cleared for take-off, I gather my things, which had been watched over by my husband. But what if I'd been traveling alone? In the past, before the existence of the strip-search scanners, the few times when I'd gotten pulled aside for a pat-down, I'd been moved to a spot where I could clearly see my belongings, and, in fact, had been told to, "keep your eyes on your property while we're doing this."
But for the 10 minutes or so I'd been standing around waiting, I couldn't see my belongings at all (I wasn't allowed to move, remember?). So if I'd been traveling alone, anyone could easily have walked off with my purse, my wallet, or whatever they wanted. And needless to say, the TSA wouldn't have been held responsible. So what if you're stranded in an airport with no money, no credit card, no ID, and no way to get help? They don't give a shit. That's not their job. Their job is Your Safety.
And if that did happen to you and you complained about it, you could be hauled off in handcuffs and detained for god knows how long. You don't have any rights when you go through security. You know it, I know it, we all know it. But hey, like the poster says, "Take my civil liberties; I wasn't using them anyway."
Indeed we aren't using them as long as we acquiesce to every new so-called security procedure the state throws at us.
Sooner or later, someone will succeed in smuggling an explosive on board that will go off. He might hide it where the sun doesn't shine. Don't know how that would ever be discovered, since presumably his ass and everything attached to it would be blown to smithereens, but that day is coming. (Or how about plastic explosives -- we're really living on borrowed time there. Or what about checkpoints at train stations? Shopping malls? Stadiums? Or outside the airport, at the curb, before you even get to a checkpoint? Good flash potential there. Great gory pix for the newspapers.)
So when that day comes, then what will be the new boneheaded procedures that will be implemented?
I posit this:
You'll be asked to drop your pants and spread your cheeks, but only in a darkened room where you'll be alone, pressing your ass up to a curtained "security checkpoint" behind which anonymous fingers in plastic gloves will probe your anonymous ass -- but only same-sex anonymous fingers, of course -- we're not barbarians after all! -- and after you're, ahem, cleared, you'll be allowed to pass back into the light, secure in the knowledge that you've done your part to protect us from The Terrorists.
Hey, it could be fun -- like glory holes in the gay bars of old. Maybe we could add disco lighting and a thumping beat to make you more comfortable and enhance the experience!
I know you'd want to do this, because it's For Your Security.
For all those out there -- and I've already tangled with many of them, including journalists whose job supposedly is to be skeptical -- who claim that all the undressing, the jewelry-removing, the metal hip and knee clanging and dinging, the strip-search scanning, is necessary, who claim that it's all keeping us safer, that it's "reducing our risk" -- your argument is specious and hypocritical.
How many of you talk on your cellphones while driving? Or, worse, text? Or speed? Or drink and drive? If you're so concerned about safety, why don't you put your money where your mouth is and get off the fucking phone? Or drive more responsibly? You're far -- very far -- more likely to be killed or maimed in a car crash -- 40,000-plus killed per year in the U.S., 2.9 million injured -- than you are to be on a plane that gets blown up by A Terrorist. Yet you won't change your behavior (oops -- there goes your argument that you're concerned about safety). But you're more than happy to hand over your civil liberties, one by one, to the security apparatus that tells you it's for your own good. Even when, again and again, the smartest people in the field tell you it's not.
So my question to you, and those aforementioned journalists, remains: Is there anything you won't do in the name of security? Is there any point at which you'll push back? Is there any procedure that will make you sit up and say, 'enough'? Or will every new requirement that comes down the pike be Necessary For Our Security?
I have yet to receive an answer from any of the security cheerleaders. As at BWI last week, I'm still waiting.