The World Is A Safer Place Today


When I fly, I always opt out of the scanner.

I realize that the opt out process is intentionally designed to be egregious and invasive and humiliating in order to herd everyone through the scanner.

Which is why I go with the pat down.

But this isn’t a piece about the dangers of millimeter waves; research them yourself and come to your own conclusion.

I’m not even interested in analyzing or discussing the reasons for or against the national security apparatus. I don’t accept the premise so I have nothing to say within that paradigm.

What I’m interested in are the stories people tell themselves surrounding the issue.

What kind of story a person tells themselves to buy the idea that submitting to the security process is an annoying but valid trade-off, the only way to keep America safe.

And what kind of story a person would have to tell themselves to get up and go to work at a job where their function is to violate people on a daily basis.

If you’re feeling defensive about either of these statements, it might help to examine more closely the story that’s floating around inside your own head.

I flew recently. When I got up to the checkpoint, I announced I was opting out as usual.

When the female agent arrived, she asked if I wanted a private room. I always say no. I want people to see that at least someone is willing to step out of line. I want to remind people what the scanner is about, to remind them that what they’re submitting to is a strip search. A modern, streamlined version, but a strip search all the same.

People have already forgotten that. It’s so much faster and easier to not think about it. Step in the box and assume the position.

I’m well aware that people have lost that connection, which is why they look at me like I’m crazy. But I don’t care. Who knows, maybe someone out there will see what I’m doing and get a clue.

Either way, it makes what’s going on here more stark. More clear what this is really about. It breaks the smooth chain of the illusion, even if no one but me notices.

The agent was pleasant, extremely professional. It’s all about professionalism. “Yes, we’re going to treat you like a convicted criminal and assume that you are a terrorist with evil intent because you want to visit Grandma in Cleveland or attend a business meeting in Denver. But we’re doing it all very professionally so it’s really no big deal. Just submit and you’ll be on your way.”

She spooled out the script, explained exactly how she was going to touch me in clinical detail beforehand and then performed the pat down like a machine on autopilot. Thoroughly. Efficiently. Mechanically.

When she was finished, she said “I just have to test my gloves and you’re good to go.” While we waited for the results to come back she smiled and asked where I was headed. Her face abruptly turned to stone. The glove had spoken: it set off an alarm. Immediately another agent was called and I was informed I would have my belongings hand-searched and wiped down for explosives, and be subjected to a second, more invasive pat down.

The instant the glove triggered the alarm, I was no longer a friendly traveler. I was now someone who had caused a glove to trigger an alarm.

It wasn’t that the agent suddenly saw me as a threat; she knew I was not a threat. It was only about clearing the alarm. She kept repeating that. “We just need to clear the alarm.”

I was reminded of something I had once seen as a very young child on a road trip with my parents. We had stopped at a small town diner, and outside the door was a vending machine that housed a chicken. When you dropped in your quarter, tinny music began to play and the chicken started to dance. When the music stopped, a handful of corn came down a chute and dropped into a little basket. This was supposed to be funny, but all I felt was sick and sad for the chicken. As I watched the agent go through the motions of wiping down the items in my carry on, swabbing my shoes, my ipod, my hair dryer, I felt this same emotion. I saw that she was trapped, performing a function not because it made any logical sense, but because she had inserted a rubber glove into a slot and it had initiated the program.

Music comes on, chicken begins to dance.

Despite the trappings of authority, the reality was that she was completely powerless in her job. There was no room for personal discretion. No room for her to use her own judgment. No room for common sense.

No room for her at all. Just a well-rehearsed and fully-assimilated training program that responded to the sound of a buzzer. Going through a round of pointless motion to collect the corn at the end of the shift.

I was taken into a room to be physically searched. The enhanced pat down was basically the same as the first time, except the agent used her palm instead of the back of her hand on “sensitive areas” along with the additional step of searching the spaces between my toes…for what I don’t know.

Once my toes had been cleared of harboring a nuclear device, it was finished. She said I could go.

I looked the agent directly in the eyes and said in a very calm but direct voice, “I feel extremely violated.” I watched a steel wall drop behind the agent’s eyes, slamming down to protect the story she clings to in order to make this all seem okay.

This is not a piece railing against TSA agents. I feel for them. Rather, this is a piece railing against the kind of thinking that allows a human being to accept the unacceptable.

At every level throughout the endless interlocking array of systems that make up this modern world, individual intelligence, rationality, discernment and intuition are being replaced by Zero Tolerance, procedure, policy and pre-determined scripted response.

Looking into those eyes, so removed from their humanity, I got the sense that if in order to clear the alarm the traveler would need to be hit with a stick, I would have been hit with a stick. Performed with the utmost in professionalism.

Later I asked another agent if they get a lot of false alarms. She said “Yes, all the time. It could be perfume, or cleaning products, or if you work with chemicals or on a farm.” I asked if she’s ever had one turn up anything legitimate. She laughed.

As I put on my shoes and repacked my bag, I watched as a 13 or 14 year-old girl with severe Down’s Syndrome was wheeled in next to me to receive her own thorough pat down. Not sure if it was because the wheelchair couldn’t go through the scanner or whether she had been randomly selected for additional scrutiny.

As I walked past her to get to my gate, I saw her mother supporting her head while the agent ran her fingers through the girl’s short, thin hair, searching for a bomb.

Made my stomach turn. But at least we can all rest easy. Because the world is now a much safer place.

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