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. 


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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."

"But what about people who hide weapons in their cavities? I asked. I actually said "vagina" again, just to see him blush. "We're just not going there," he reiterated.

I asked him if he was looking forward to conducting the full-on pat-downs. "Nobody's going to do it," he said, "once they find out that we're going to do."

In other words, people, when faced with a choice, will inevitably choose the Dick-Measuring Device over molestation? "That's what we're hoping for. We're trying to get everyone into the machine." He called over a colleague. "Tell him what you call the back-scatter," he said. "The Dick-Measuring Device," I said. "That's the truth," the other officer responded.

The pat-down at BWI was fairly vigorous, by the usual tame standards of the TSA, but it was nothing like the one I received the next day at T.F. Green in Providence. Apparently, I was the very first passenger to ask to opt-out of back-scatter imaging. Several TSA officers heard me choose the pat-down, and they reacted in a way meant to make the ordinary passenger feel very badly about his decision. One officer said to a colleague who was obviously going to be assigned to me, "Get new gloves, man, you're going to need them where you're going."

The agent snapped on his blue gloves, and patiently explained exactly where he was going to touch me. I felt like a sophomore at Oberlin.

"I'm going to run my hands up your thighs, and then feel your buttocks, then I'm going to reach under you until I meet --"

"Resistance?" I interrupted.

"Yes, resistance. Do you want to go into a private room?" he asked.

"Are you asking me into a private room?" I said. He looked confused. I said, "No, here is fine."

He felt me up good, but not great. It was not in any way the best pat-down I've ever received. The most thorough search I've ever experienced was in the Bekaa Valley, by Hezbollah security officers. That took quite awhile, and the Resistance really manhandled my Resistance. There was no cavity search, of course -- no magazine story, even one about Hezbollah terrorism -- is worth that. But it was the fairly full Monty.

I draw three lessons from this week's experience: The pat-down, while more effective than previous pat-downs, will not stop dedicated and clever terrorists from smuggling on board small weapons or explosives. When I served as a military policeman in an Israeli army prison, many of the prisoners "bangled" contraband up their asses. I know this not because I checked, but because eventually they told me this when I asked.

The second lesson is that the effectiveness of pat-downs does not matter very much, because the obvious goal of the TSA is to make the pat-down embarrassing enough for the average passenger that the vast majority of people will choose high-tech humiliation over the low-tech ball check.

The third lesson remains constant: By the time terrorist plotters make it to the airport, it is, generally speaking, too late to stop them. Plots must be broken up long before the plotters reach the target. If they are smart enough to make it to the airport without arrest, it is almost axiomatically true that they will be smart enough to figure out a way to bring weapons aboard a plane.

Update 1: Many people are asking me if I actually named my testicles "The Resistance." Of course not. I was just messing with the guy from TSA. My testicles are actually named "Tzipi" and "Bibi."

Update 2:
 The sequel


Illustration by Alex Hoyt on iPad Brushes
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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. Author of the book Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror, Goldberg also writes the magazine's advice column. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. Previously, he served as 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.

His 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. Goldberg rthe recipient of the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism. 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. He is also the recipient of 2005's Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize.

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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