I won’t be traveling this holiday season and I’m relieved. My moment of decision to choose what screening I’ll subject my body to will be delayed. I’m told the titanium pins in my spine will always set the metal detectors beeping when I pass through. I haven’t flown since the pins were inserted. In the past, I’ve been subjected to a mild back-of-hand pat down in sensitive places as other passengers streamed by, and I still remember the security agent who slapped my hand when I tried to reach into my purse. It wasn’t traumatic by any means, but it was strange.
Today, the ante has been upped by events and threats of future events, and “enhanced” pat downs are far more personally invasive. If available, one can submit to a new full-body scan that reduces the traveler to an image clothed only in bare skin viewed by a screener out of one’s sight.
Either choice is intrusive and opinions are flowing about the appropriateness of the new procedures. Charges that the procedures violate our liberties don’t make sense to me, since the intrusiveness is not unwarranted. I know enough to know I don’t know enough to know what procedures should be used. But I also know enough to know that we deserve to be treated with a measure of respect while submitting to unnerving security measures.
My sister, a veteran traveler, departed from Los Angeles International Airport dressed in loose clothing for the hot humid weather of Hawaii, her destination. She passed through the metal detectors beep-free, but the Transportation Security Agent determined her clothing loose enough to warrant further screening. “Your pants are too baggy. Stand over here,” the male agent announced, calling for a female TSA agent to perform a serious pat down.
Minutes went by and though the male agent repeatedly called for assistance, no female agent arrived. My sister, aware that her purse, cell phone and laptop were now sitting in a bin out of her sight, moved to see if she could spot her belongings, only to be screamed at by the agent for moving. More minutes went by and still no female agent arrived to perform the pat down.
Now very concerned about the possibility that her possessions could be, let’s say, “accidentally” picked up by others, my sister calmly offered to remove her pants if that’s what it took to get through the screening. The stalemate was finally resolved, but not until nearly 15 minutes had passed — a long time to stand and wait in an airport screening area when your essential possessions are left unguarded.
I don’t know if I would have had my sister’s chutzpah, but I applaud it. Her experience is part of what’s wrong with the current TSA procedures — the human element, recognizing that people need to be treated with a degree of dignity, not as cogs on a conveyor belt whose convenience and dignity isn’t worth observing. There are limits to what travelers should be subjected to, and the TSA has reached them.
Asking a flight attendant and cancer survivor to remove her breast prosthesis for inspection, as happened recently, is beyond the pale, it seems to me. Even more egregious is the story of the TSA agent who broke the ostomy bag of a bladder cancer survivor during a pat down, drenching the poor man in his own urine and leaving him unable to change his clothes until his plane was in the air.
What all this brings home to me is that all travel in the U.S., whether it’s by plane, train or bus, will never be quite as safe as it used to be. We all want and demand increased security and it’s going to cost us time, convenience, money and a measure of personal privacy. But it should never mean we lose our right to be treated with an equal measure of personal dignity.