Separate from Those Scanners, Intrusive Airport Pat-Downs Are Par for the Course for Many Thousands of Travelers
November 24, 2010
Much of the discussion surrounding the TSA's body scanners and intrusive "enhanced pat-downs" has missed an important point: the new security policy, confounding and frustrating as it is, has been an airport reality for many of us for decades. Hundreds of thousands of fliers have metal in their bodies from hip and knee replacements and other surgeries, and that metal sets off metal detectors at every airport -- whether there are scanners in place or not.
For example, I have a cobalt right hip, which was replaced because of arthritis -- where the cartilage wears away, and bone rubs against bone -- from my earlier football-playing days. There are more than 200,000 hip replacements surgeries done every year, so there are millions of us with metal in our hips. Every time we fly, we set the metal detector off and have to have a pat-down. I've had that done well over 100 times. (I know, I fly too much.)
This is a drag for a lot of reasons. For one thing, you get moved into a holding area, where you're isolated from your belongings on the conveyor belt. If you're a savvy "metal" flier, you try to get the attention of a TSA agent to help gather your stuff, so no one steals it or knocks it off. (One time my computer got pushed off the belt and crashed to the floor.) But it should be noted that your property is not the responsibility of the TSA. They told me recently that there is a camera watching the proceedings; so if someone grabs my computer, at some point I might get a picture of who did it -- great. The best thing you can do is "keep your eye on your property" (not to be confused with your junk), as you're told to do by the TSA agents.
When I set the metal detector alarm off, as I always do, the person stationed at the metal detector yells, "male assist!" and herds me into the holding area. Depending on who was listening, who is around, whether there is a shift change, and who else might be in the holding pen, waiting for a "male assist," getting the pat-down, and retrieving your stuff can add 10 to 15 minutes or more on your way to your flight.
Then the pat-down comes, along with the wand, which beeps every time it passes metal, like the buckles on my cargo pants. Generally TSA workers are trying to do the right thing, and don't like the process much more than I do. But the inconsistency between different airports, and even TSA workers, is quite broad. Some are efficient and perfunctory. Others are tedious and ridiculously redundant; for instance, I've had my bare arms patted down while wearing a short-sleeved shirt. But until recently, for the most part, the pat-downs have been manageable.
However, everything changed last month -- not just for people who voluntarily opt-out of going through the scanning machines, but also for the many thousands of us who set off the old metal detectors each day. The manhandling of our bodies became far more aggressive. Hands are stuck inside our pants, front and back. Hands are jammed up our crotch between our legs.
And why? That's a good question. I asked my most recent TSA handler at New York's John F. Kennedy airport, why the new approach? He mentioned the so-called "underwear bomber" -- Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab of Nigeria, who had explosives in his underpants and was overpowered by passengers on his flight last December.
We're being basically molested because of this one man, who has nothing to do with the millions of people who fly every day. (Never mind that his flight was from Amsterdam, and the security proceedings relating to this guy screwed up in a number of ways; his father reported to the U.S. government that he was a suspected terrorist.) Suddenly, nine months after the incident, the TSA has enforced the pat-down of every American with metal in their bodies traveling within their own country -- as if each and every one of us may have non-metal explosives in our underwear (if we're even wearing underwear!).
Oh, and they stopped using that wand to detect metal, even though that is the reason I was sent to the holding pen to begin with.
Also, on my last trip, the TSA agent gathered my bags for me. Why? Because now they wipe down carry-on bags for explosives...because I have metal in my hip.
The logic of all this makes no sense. Here's why: I'm pulled out for a pat-down because I set off the metal detector. But presumably, they are searching for explosives which do not set off the detector -- hence the explosives wipe-down, and the dropping of the wand. But doesn't everyone, including all the people who don't set off the metal detector, have the same opportunity to bring through non-metal explosives? I'm getting a mauling because I have metal in my body, and it's doing nothing to catch any potential non-metal explosives in my underwear.
Yes, the scanners are supposed to correct for this loophole in the process, but in all my flying, I have only gone through a scanner twice, both times in the international wing of SFO. Many airports don't have scanners. To be honest, I was personally excited about the scanners, because I thought it meant the pat-downs would stop, and I really don't care about my body being exposed to some TSA agent I don't know. (I'm past my prime for those kind of worries.) But guess what? Even after going through the scanners, I'm still getting patted down. Go figure.
Of course, it's not just people with metal joint replacements who have always had to deal with these over-the-top security measures -- it's also (and maybe especially) minorities subjected to racial profiling. My point is that many, many thousands of travelers each day are treated rudely and unethically for no logical reason. And it isn't right.
Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.