Invasion of the body scannersBy
“Okay, now I’m going to run my hands across your butt, using the backs of my hands,” says the TSA agent giving what would turn out to be a thirty-minute screening at Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport.
His supervisor, who is training the man in, interjects as the trainee sticks his fingers deep inside my waistband. “You need to say but-TOCK.”
“Oh, I can’t just say butt?”
“Nope you’ve got to include the ‘T-O-C-K’.”
It’s a positively unworldly experience, refusing the full-body TSA scans. If you’re one of the people randomly selected, like I was, you enter this cylinder of strange mechanical parts where your picture is taken with an X-ray camera and sent to a TSA agent in a remote location who spends the day reviewing carbon-colored, semi-nude images of travelers like myself. I don’t like it. I don’t like that standard operating procedure now is to have a physical image of my disrobed body put on a computer. I don’t like that the TSA agents usher you into this cylinder like it’s the most normal thing in the world. So a combination of my contentious objector status on the X-ray scans and my natural curiosity to see what all the hullabalo over these invasive pat-downs was lead me to exercise my right to refuse the scan.
“I’m not going in that thing,” I say to the agent at the front of the line, a man of at least six feet, six inches and 270 pounds.
“We’ve got an opt-out!” he shouts to the other side of the screening area. An echo chamber of voices going to the head boss repeat his alert.
“Can we get an opt-out screener!?”
“I’m on my way!”
The big agent turns to me and asks me to step to the side of the line while the people behind me step through the screener. I wait about three minutes until the trainee and trainer approach me and begin the procedure. The procedure is something anyone flying in an American airport is entitled to; it’s a pat down that gets progressively more invasive. Because I do quite a bit of travel and read about on some helpful blogs, I knew what was coming, but it was still a little disarming to hear the trainee TSA agent say to me, “Okay sir, now I’m going to run the back of my hand across your groin.” He does, then he asks me to sit down, he feels up my ankles a bit, then excuses himself to rub a cotton swab across the gloves he’s just used to pat me down.
Almost done, I think. He inserts the cotton swab into a machine, and just like I’ve gotten the question wrong on Jeopardy, it buzzes. Both trainee and trainer’s heads snap up.
“Supervisor on the way!”
The trainer takes over for the trainee, who seems to have worked beyond his pay grade. “Sir,” the trainer says to me, “when we tested the gloves we used to pat you down, we found a residue. We need to bring a supervisor over, it will be just a moment.”
“What does the residue indicate?” I ask.
“I can’t give out that information,” he says.
Before I know it, I’m in a private screening room with the supervisor and trainee who serves as witness. The supervisor repeats the explanation, then explains “I’m just going to have to repeat the procedure, but this time when I go over your groin area I’ll have to do it with the front of my hand instead of the back.” If I fail this one, I wonder if my next screening will include a handjob.
He does the pat down, pausing before moving my “groin area” and repeating to me his warning: He’s going to use the front of his hand.
“I can’t wait!” I say (or I wish I had said, but I hear making jokes is a bad idea in these situations).
He finishes and tests his gloves, and the test comes back negative. Before I can go though, they remove everything from my backpack and lay it flat on the table. Cameras, medicines and condoms all lay out on the table where other travelers are passing by. For all our sakes, the screeners and I pretend not to notice the condoms.
Then they take my stuff back to the X-ray machine and put it through, this time with three agents squinting at the screen as they look at the insides of my two cameras, computer, books and other miscellaneous stuff in my carry-on bag.
They bring me my stuff, thank me for my patience, and tell me I’m free to go. As I’m putting on my shoes the trainee awkwardly comes over and says something like, “Sorry for the inconvenience. It’s all for safety.”
“I understand,” I say as I walk away.
I do understand. In this day and age we need to be vigilant against terrorism, and I don’t fault any of the agents for how they acted. They don’t know me from John Q. Terrorist. In pat down wasn’t nearly as invasive as I was expecting, but I also wonder if the 30 extra minutes I was forced to spend during these enhanced screening procedures were a backdoor punishment for me refusing the full-body scanners. The signs marked outside the security area clearly state that I am allowed to refuse the body scans, yet by making the secondary screenings as invasive and inconvenient as possible, it seems TSA pressures people into stepping into those creepy mechanical cylinders.
And you know what? They’ve won, because I won’t be refusing the full-body scan again.