'Do I Have to Tell You?' User Polling by the TSA

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A reader writes about his recent experience in a screening line at the San Francisco airport:

In response to yesterday's blog post containing a reader's and Senator Rand Paul's accounts of recent airport security experiences, I wanted to share my own. I flew out of SFO the other day, and the security checkpoint I went through (Terminal 1, Boarding area C) was shunting all passengers through millimeter wave devices - the first time I've seen them used on all passengers at a checkpoint, and not just a sample.

When my turn came and I opted out, my friendly male opt-out screener approached me with a clipboard and asked me why I was opting out. "Do I have to tell you?" I said. "No, but the TSA is collecting that information to help improve the screening process," he replied, pleasantly. "I don't trust the TSA to properly calibrate and maintain the machines, and I find the hands-up position debasing," I said. He thought a moment and checked a box on his clipboard marked "Other." We proceeded with the pat-down, which he conducted with all courtesy and professional comportment.

I'm very curious as to whether you or your readers are also being asked their reasons for opting out, not as a provocation by screeners with bad attitudes, but in a systematic way. And I'm dying to know what the other boxes on that form say!

My boyfriend was on the same flight, and also opted out of the millimeter wave machine. He had to wait a few minutes for his pat-down, in a cordoned-off area about a yard square right next to the x-ray machine. He asked if he could wait somewhere else, since he was exposed there to too much ionizing radiation for comfort. Instead of remarking on the irony, the screener just said "no," but when he kept pressing his case, some other TSA employee, perhaps a manager, let him go stand somewhere a bit further from the machine. Sitting, however, was strictly forbidden.

A final thought: as I was listening to Senator Paul's comments, I was taken aback that he would prefer the invasion and indignity of going through a full-body scanner multiple times to the invasion and indignity of being groped by an agent of the state. I prefer the latter because the indignity is the same in principle, but slightly safer and delivered by a human being who can look me in the eye. Then I realized how inured I'd become to such indignity. And that is why I hate the TSA: it is insidious in its constant escalation of human debasement.

I had the same surprise about Rand Paul's decision: I will happily go through a metal-detector all day long, but I prefer the pat-down to the body-screening machine for reasons like those the reader mentions and others. On the other hand, good for the TSA if it is inquiring into travelers' attitudes. More on this front to come.

Update From another reader who was surveyed after opting-out:

I flew through SFO in early December. I do the opt-out-as-protest-vote when I have the time, and got surveyed with the clipboard. I answered something like, "I am not convinced TSA management has had the devices sufficiently independently vetted, and disagree with the rollout procedure". TSA agent paused for a moment to process, and said "I'll mark 'refused'".

While I couldn't see what the other options were, this and "Other" make it sound like it's just garden-variety process statistics; the sort of data you gather to make sure the machinery runs well, not some sort of covert opinion polling.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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