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On sexual harassment and safety

The debate over the new TSA screening procedures has reached the shrillest heights of internet shrieking and blanket coverage by the major media. This morning, CNN is interviewing John Tyner, aka Mr. "Don't Touch My Junk."

I doubt my two cents will add much to the firehose, but I still want to say my piece.

I've received airport pat-downs. The American version, where I'm pulled aside and my body briskly checked for concealed items, as well as the Middle Eastern version, where I'm taken into a closet-sized room by a woman who put her hands firmly on most of my torso and legs. She knew how easy it is to hide small items inside a bra, but was able to search in a way that was professional and left me reassured that my flight was safe.

All of which is to say: I'm not morally opposed to pat-downs. In fact, after the most thorough one I got in an American airport, I made a point of stopping by the supervisor's table and saying that the (male) guard who had searched me had been professional and courteous in what couldn't have been a comfortable experience for either of us, and I wanted him to get recognition for doing a difficult job well.

Two weeks ago, I experienced one of the AIT scans while en route to DC for the Rally to Restore Sanity. Advanced Imaging Technology. Sounds so innocuous, doesn't it?

I'd never heard of them before, and had no idea what to expect - I may be a journalist, but I don't own a TV, so I still miss a lot of "what's current in America" - but as an experienced traveler, I obediently took off my shoes, emptied my pockets of everything, from keys to chapstick, stepped on the indicated squares, put my hands on my head, and waited.

I felt the strangest combination of pressure and vibration. The phrase that came to mind was that the air was ionizing around me, but I've forgotten enough chemistry that I don't even know if that makes sense. I just know that I felt the concussive force of something invisible, like I'd gotten a few-second version of standing in front of a speaker at a rock concert, combined with a buzzy, trembly, vibrating sensation that I imagine Star Trek's transporters would feel like (if someone ever invents them).

And then it was done. I took my hands down, put my keys and chapstick back into my pocket, and went off to my gate, trying to shake off the feeling that I'd walked through a wall - or that a wall had walked through me.

I now know that I'd been bombarded either by millimeter wavelength electromagnetic waves (seems likely, given the sensation) or by X-ray backscatter. Both are designed to render an image of my body under my clothes, so someone in a nearby booth or room got a view of me that I don't give to strangers.

Though I hadn't known it at the time, I'd had an alternative: if I wanted to opt out of the digital strip search, I could go for the non-digital equivalent, which the TSA euphamistically refers to as an "enhanced pat-down". This isn't the back-of-the-hand quick check of American airports in past years, nor is it the firmer palm-and-fingers search I got in Jordan and Egypt. (Morocco, interestingly, sticks to metal detectors.)

The "enhanced pat-down" gives TSA agents the right to fondle, grope, and rub my body. My whole body. Yes, that part, too. Through my clothes, true, but it's still a level of physical intimacy that I am absolutely not comfortable with.

My ACLU interviewee has observed that the sheer invasiveness seems designed to "drive" people to the AIT scan, which, given the options, does seem like the lesser of two evils. When TSA began pilot testing the AIT machines, 98 percent of passengers, presented with the choice of a big scary box and a groping, chose the big box.

But what has American passenger fear come to that we're choosing to let a stranger view us naked?

When I spoke to a Fourth Amendment scholar last night - being a journalist does have some perks, and one is that world-renowned scholars take my calls - he made a lot of points that I didn't want to hear, because I was clinging to the idea that this is an unreasonable search, performed without a warrant.

But the precedents he saw were in DUI checkpoints, where drivers give an "implied consent" - that is, as I learned in my high school legal studies course, where the act of driving on the road is a choice, which includes an implicit consent to take a Breathalyzer or walk a straight line when asked. Flying, the professor said, is a similarly chosen activity that provides its own implied consent to jump through whatever hoops the government deems necessary. "You don't have to fly," he kept saying.

But I live 3000 miles away from my loved ones, I kept silently retorting. I don't have enough vacation time to drive or take the train.

Sometime in the century since the Wright Brothers worked their Kitty Hawk miracle, air travel has come to feel like a right, available to anyone who can afford it.

And now my right to see my loved ones is confronted with the public's right not to have planes blow up.

The professor talked about the "balance" between society's interest and the individual's privacy interest. The only ground he gave me was just how very invasive this search is.

The ACLU spokesman I spoke with (who was actually waiting for my call - my job is pretty awesome) pointed out that neither the scan nor the pat-down can reveal anything concealed in a body cavity, nor is it particularly good at finding liquid explosives, which are therefore the logical next steps for terrorists. And I really, really don't want to imagine what security will look like after the first time a terrorist hides a bomb inside her body.

On Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, thousands of passengers (of the nearly two million who will fly that day, according to the ATA spokesman who, yes, took my call) are planning to opt out of the digital strip search in a form of not-exactly-civil-disobedience, but a show of civil obedience that will cause delays, longer lines, and, most importantly, show people who may believe that this is all just media hype that Americans are being groped in airports.

As one young mother said, after she was sexually assaulted by a TSA agent (and the agent's boss acknowledged it as assault only because the agent didn't tell the mother exactly where her hands were going to be, before putting them there), TSA agents are now freely encouraged to do things to American citizens, not charged with anything, without a shred of probable cause, that soldiers are prohibited doing to enemy combatants seized as prisoners of war.

After two years in Morocco, I've had every surface of my body fondled at least once, always by a stranger, usually in a crowd.

Not surprisingly, the regular gropings and grabbings and fondlings left me feeling remarkably unsafe.

I never thought the American government would repeat the process, in the name of my safety.


  1. thoughtful close to a good-as-usual post. coming form a second year volunteer here in morocco... i (literally) feel ya sister.

  2. Excellent's always a pleasure to read your stuff :)

  3. HMMM. I didn't realize it was quite so bad... good to know, though. You have to choose to put yourself in the way of radiation (which some of us are trying to minimize in our lives) or to stiff-upper-lip-it through a VERY uncomfortable sounding search.
    What's the better way? Is there one?


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