For the First Time, the TSA Meets Resistance

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A journey through the security line at the Baltimore airport

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This past Wednesday, I showed up at Baltimore-Washington International for a flight to Providence, R.I. I had a choice of two TSA screening checkpoints. I picked mine based on the number of people waiting in line, not because I am impatient, but because the coiled, closely packed lines at TSA screening sites are the most dangerous places in airports, completely unprotected from a terrorist attack -- a terrorist attack that would serve the same purpose (shutting down air travel) as an attack on board an aircraft.

Agents were funneling every passenger at this particular checkpoint through a newly installed back-scatter body imaging device, which allows the agency's security officers to, in essence, see under your clothing. The machine captures an image of your naked self, including your genitals, and sends the image to an agent in a separate room. I don't object to stringent security (as you will soon see), but I do object to meaningless security theater (Bruce Schneier's phrase), and I believe that we would be better off if the TSA focused its attentions on learning the identity and background of each passenger, rather than on checking whether passengers are carrying contraband (as I suggested in this article, it is possible for a moderately clever person to move contraband through TSA screenings with a fair amount of ease, even with this new technology). 

In part because of the back-scatter imager's invasiveness (a TSA employee in Miami was arrested recently after he physically assaulted a colleague who had mocked his modestly sized penis, which was fully apparent in a captured back-scatter image), the TSA is allowing passengers to opt-out of the back-scatter and choose instead a pat-down. I've complained about TSA pat-downs in the past, because they, too, were more security theater than anything else. They are, as I would learn, becoming more serious, as well. 


MORE ON TSA:
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At BWI, I told the officer who directed me to the back-scatter that I preferred a pat-down. I did this in order to see how effective the manual search would be. When I made this request, a number of TSA officers, to my surprise, began laughing. I asked why. One of them -- the one who would eventually conduct my pat-down -- said that the rules were changing shortly, and that I would soon understand why the back-scatter was preferable to the manual search. I asked him if the new guidelines included a cavity search. "No way. You think Congress would allow that?"

I answered, "If you're a terrorist, you're going to hide your weapons in your anus or your vagina." He blushed when I said "vagina."

"Yes, but starting tomorrow, we're going to start searching your crotchal area" -- this is the word he used, "crotchal" -- and you're not going to like it."

"What am I not going to like?" I asked.

"We have to search up your thighs and between your legs until we meet resistance," he explained.

"Resistance?" I asked.

"Your testicles," he explained.

'That's funny," I said, "because 'The Resistance' is the actual name I've given to my testicles."

He answered, "Like 'The Situation,' that guy from 'Jersey Shore?'"

Yes, exactly, I said. (I used to call my testicles "The Insurgency," but those assholes in Iraq ruined the term.)

I pointed out to the security officer that 50 percent of the American population has no balls (90 percent in Washington, D.C., where I live), so what is going to happen when the pat-down officer meets no resistance in the crotchal area of women? "If there's no resistance, then there's nothing there."

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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