Grope Away

By Graeme Wood
Atlantic bloggers are singing in unison in general support of tomorrow's Opt-Out Day, on which travelers will protest intrusive and ineffective backscatter scanning technology by opting for intrusive and ineffective crotch-fondling instead.  But Slate's William Saletan thinks it's "idiocy" and implies that he hopes that The Atlantic's Voices get felt up good and proper as punishment.

He writes:

Ignore these imbeciles. Their plan would clog security lines and ruin your holiday for no good reason. They don't understand the importance of the electronic scans. They're wrong about the scanners' safety. And from the standpoint of dignity, their advice is insane. If you opt out of the scan, you'll get a pat-down instead. You'll trade a fast, invisible, intangible, privacy-protected machine inspection for an unpleasant, extended grope. In effect, you'll be telling TSA to touch your junk.

This imbecile's junk won't be touched tomorrow, at least not in any way that's any of Saletan's business.  I won't be flying in the U.S.  But when I eventually do get ushered toward one of the backscatter booths, I'll certainly opt for molestation instead.  It's difficult to believe Saletan can't understand why.

I'll leave aside the issue of the safety of the machines, except to point out a few concerns that deserve more shrift than Saletan or the TSA give them.  What surprises me is his obtuseness on question of dignity.  The Opt-Out crowd knows that opting out will mean "an unpleasant, extended grope."  If the point of the day were to pass rapidly through airport security without being groped, they would indeed by imbeciles.  One might also say (drawing an analogy to a somewhat more serious protest) that Rosa Parks actually took more, not less, time to get home when she refused to give up her seat.

The point is to be publicly robbed of dignity, in a way that draws attention to policies and registers a public protest against them.  The Opt-Out crowd consists of a coalition of those who hate strangers' touching their privates, those who think the security-versus-liberty calculus is out of whack, and those who think the scanners are inadequate to the threats posed by terrorists because (as Goldberg keeps saying) they do nothing to stop the anus-bomber threat.  Apparently the directive to feel up passengers has already upset actual TSA screeners; that's part of the point.  Indignity is the short-term goal.  Dignity plus safety is the long-term goal.

My favorite (semi-)defense of the scanners so far has come from Tyler Cowen, who has a predictably heterodox take, suggesting that (among other things) we adjust our attitudes toward nudity to be more in line with Europe's: Freikörperkultur comes to America.  I'm all in favor of that, though German nudism should be the subject of a later, lengthier post.  Meantime, I'd rather those cultural norms shift on their own schedule, rather than because the TSA thinks it needs to irradiate me and see a picture of me naked to keep air travel safe.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2010/11/grope-away/66928/