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

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

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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.

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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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