Thursday, June 13, 2013

Security Theater

I travel. A lot. I fly mostly international and I've gotten into a reasonable routine. I still remember the first times I flew as an adult, the feeling of being rushed and lost and crammed into a small space.

But now I am mostly zen about airports. They are what they are, massive, complex systems that churn through millions of people and are somehow some of the safest places in the modern world. You don't get to retain your privacy or personal space in this context and it is all better once you accept that.

But there is one thing I take a stand about: Body scanners in US airports. They represent to me all that has gone wrong post 9/11 with the over reach of a "security at all costs" mentality. They are not actually known to be make us more secure (, are very expensive and it is unclear what the additional radiation means for your health (

Note that staff are not required to go through, but are sent through the metal detector. If it does no harm, why make the exception?

I'm not usually one for theater, but in this case, since I have the right to opt out of the screening, I always do. My minor way of taking a stand. And since I am a seasoned traveller, I'm on time and not in a rush, so their pressure tactics don't work.

The first thing they do is give you a sour look. Then they make you stand somewhere away from your bags which have now gone through the x-ray machine and they call for a "female assist". This is when the shame and grope punishment goes into full swing.

The request for the assistance takes time, enough to consider, if I were a terrorist, what could I accomplish with my bags inside the "secure area" and me (unchecked) on the other. Not much I conclude. But then they open a gate, next to the old fashioned metal detector they send staff through and usher you into the secure area WITHOUT any check!

At this point I could have brought a gun through without detection. And because they treat you with disdain (this is a punishment for not following the rules, not actually enhanced security) and not mistrust, they do not keep an eye on you at all times. I'm guessing a criminal worth their salt could pass a weapon to a partner easily.

The female assist then asks me to point to my bags (without touching them). I have typically two carry-on bags, a laptop and removed shoes. That is 4 items to pick up. This is where my revenge kicks in. She has to pick up these bulky items and awkwardly carry then to a side table. Note that she is distracted and laden with my baggage at this stage, so my compliance is essential to this process. Another opportunity?

Safely at the side table she begins her speech. It is a dry tired thing describing in painful detail the embarrassing but "professional" pat down she is about to perform. Sometimes I smile through, sometimes I rush her on.

Her blue gloves are applied with firm pressure over every surface of my body. It is a slow pat down, and far more lingering than necessary unless you are looking for pre-cancerous lumps. And trust me, I have had pats downs in London, Germany, Dubai, Beijing, Singapore, etc. those are quick and to the point, "confirm you do not have a lumpy weapon like object on your body" is their objective. Not so in the US.

It is a show, to make me uncomfortable standing out, and uncomfortable from touching that is just on the edge of what they can call "professional". They even put their fingers in your waist band and run along, front and back.

Then they scan their gloves for residue and waive you on when the machine clears me. Like a lover who has suddenly lost interest.

It makes me sad that America suffered a massive terrorist attack on 9/11 that involved airplanes. But we cannot fix that moment in time. No other country in the world I have been to has found this necessary and many of them have been facing terrorist threats for far longer. I would feel better if studies showed cost effectiveness and safety. But the avoidance of accountability is clear enough to me.

I hope more people choose to take 10 minutes of their time and opt out. If not on principle than at least for your own health.

Today the TSA agent in Miami said "are you opting out because of radiation? Because we turned it down". That's comforting: before it was too high because no one bothered to check. Now it is lower, but still there are no independent tests showing lower is safe and all I have to go on is a security agents' assurance.

Thanks, but I'll take the light massage instead.