Opting Out of Naked Scans at the Airport: A Protest Movement

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Why I'm volunteering for the invasive pat-down and you should too.

tsa full grope.jpg

On Sunday, I joined the herd traversing the security line at Dulles International Airport. My wool coat stripped off, relieved of my shoes, I was shepherded by TSA employees to the naked scanner. How tempting to pass through without protest, as everyone else seemed to be doing, for it's quick and painless to be bombarded with radiation. The alternative, an intrusive pat-down, is time-consuming and unpleasant. These powerful incentives help explain why  once controversial Rapiscan machines are now treated as routine by most air travelers.

Nevertheless I opted out, standing arms and legs spread before a heavyset, middle-aged man with a beard. He ran his hands over my body in ways that would risk the wrath of the local vice squad were he an exotic dancer and I a strip club patron. Unpleasant as it was, I'd encourage you to opt for the same treatment at every opportunity, or at least when you aren't in danger of missing your flight, for the status quo demeans a free people; and unless a critical mass of Americans gum up the works, TSA is sure to transgress against us more in time. The agency is already asserting itself in train stations, bus depots, and truck stops. And if, given current trends, you regard cavity searches as unthinkable I am not sure why. So far, every bungled plot has caused attendant intrusions.

Before proceeding, note this: if these naked scanner machines and intrusive pat-downs make us safer from dying in a terrorist attack on a commercial airliner, itself a controversial question, we are infinitesimally safer at best, and even complete success securing our airports from attack likely won't make us safer overall, for terrorists need not attack us there -- every elementary school, shopping mall, and municipal bus in America is a potential target for a determined enemy. Thus the folly of subjecting so many innocents to intrusive searches to slightly harden a single target. Doing so doesn't reflect a rational calculation of costs and benefits, except to the bureaucrats responsible for the airports. It is their interests, not our interests, that the naked scanners and intrusive pat downs serve: pushing the public past its comfort zone enables them to argue, if there is an attack, that they did all they realistically could, and meanwhile changes the relationship between a free people and its government in troubling ways.

Opting out calls attention to the change. Passing through the naked scanner, where passengers cannot see the resulting images, the magnitude of TSA's intrusiveness is obscured, as is the possible safety hazard of a malfunctioning machine that pumps into a person too much radiation.

But standing in the middle of the screening area, fellow passengers all around, with your arms and legs spread apart, and an agent of the state running a glove clad hand up your inner thigh? It's a spectacle. And watching it, most people are viscerally repulsed. It is discordant with our image of ourselves as the citizens of a free and freedom loving country. There's only one thing I'm conflicted about when I evoke this reaction: I lament the prejudice in airports against people perceived as being Muslim, but am painfully aware that some American travelers harbor this prejudice; and when the prejudiced see me, a professionally dressed white guy getting patted down, they take notice in a way they wouldn't if I were, say, a young Ethiopian guy. There's an upside to that. And indeed I am glad when I see a guy in a military uniform or an old lady or an attractive young woman or a teenage girl opting for the pat down: provoking a visceral reaction is the idea! Yet it is perhaps unseemly to benefit from this prejudices.

I hope the effect isn't for xenophobes to conclude that we should be racially profiling so that "real Americans" aren't needlessly demeaned. In fact, I rather wish that they'd opt out and experience for themselves what it's like to be "stopped and frisked." Though obviously less fraught than a street stop, the airport security line sure helps me grok how oppressive it must be to go through analogous scrutiny at random times on the streets that surround one's apartment.

The "opt-out" strategy has lots of utility beyond the spectacle it provokes in fellow passengers: it makes matters harder on the TSA in three important ways. The first is that it takes them more time to process each passenger, a burden with an upper limit: perhaps if enough people opt out, the agency will decide that the metal detectors -- still used exclusively in many airports -- are sufficient after all, and eliminating them is necessary if we're to have efficient airports.

There is also the fact that pat-downs are unpleasant for TSA employees. While I regret that on an individual level -- the gentleman I had was perfectly professional, and I wish I wasn't compelled to make his job harder -- I nevertheless want TSA employees to collectively pressure their agency to end the pat-downs. "Stop forcing us to touch your junk" would be a great picket line chant. And it's most likely to come about if they're doing these pat-downs many more times per day (though I'd encourage everyone opting out to be civil and remember that the employees aren't the enemy, the bureaucrats and the politicians who fail to reverse them are).

Finally, if an "opting out" movement took hold -- if folks knew about the movement when they saw fellow passengers being patted down beside the naked scanners -- it would do a lot to prevent the status quo from being normalized. That is a vital priority, for security theater and TSA intrusions will only spread if each successive expansion is met with initial protests followed by normalization. Naked scans should not be normal. Intrusive pat downs should not be normal. Each of us possesses a way to signal as much without having to spend any money or face arrest, and the demeaning nature of the pat down is born much more easily when you're choosing it voluntarily for the sake of liberty. So next time you travel, get to the airport a bit earlier than normal. Opt out of the naked scanner. As you're patted down, take note of the folks who are drawn to the spectacle. If you see them afterward near your gate, explain yourself.

This is how we get our country back. 


Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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