December 10, 2010

Nothing to Hide

Do you know how many people were killed on the four hijacked flights on September 11, 2001? The answer is 266, including the 19 hijackers. Two months later, 260 people died when a single plane broke apart in the air due to pilot error. None of them were hijackers.

Yes, there were thousands on the ground who died. I am not forgetting them. I am very happy to report that the U.S. government and airlines quickly took measures to securely separate passengers from flight controls.

I'm also happy to say that the U.S. quickly took some measures to tighten up what was some of the industrialized world's sloppiest airport security. Before the hijackings, I was on a trip to Scotland that involved the transportation of large amounts of camera equipment and a lead-lined bag containing film. I thanked the security scanners in the Glasgow airport for being the only people who bothered to look in the bag to make sure it was film. Things were incredibly lax before the hijackings. They did not stay that way.

In the nine years that have followed the hijackings, how many people have died in terrorist attacks on planes with passengers screened by the TSA? Of the attacks that happened and failed, how many were not carried out by fanatics who were willing to die? Or to put the same question in terms of relevance today: How many of them were less motivated than your average drug mule, who won't be discovered by anything less than a cavity search?

The answer to that last question is important. That is the number of attacks that will be prevented by the new, highly invasive screening measures the TSA has recently implemented.

I don't know the answer to that question. Neither do you, but we can both make pretty good estimates. I'm going with zero. Your answer may be different, but it won't be wildly different. We have taken effective measures to increase our security since the hijackings. I don't see any way that this new measure can even incrementally increase our current level of airline security. This is pure security theater.

Anil Dash wrote a couple of weeks ago about the value of security theater. I recommend reading his post. If nothing else, he lays out the maximum value we obtain from measures like these. It is the value of an illusion, but it is a value. And given that we won't obtain any safety increases from allowing subjecting ourselves to this sort of search, it is the total value we will receive. Please keep that value fixed firmly in your mind as you keep reading.

I also have Fibromyalgia. There are points on my body that fire up an amazing amount of pain in response to the slightest pressure. I educate new lovers with brightly-colored disc bandages or stickers. Somehow I doubt the airport authorities will comply with the sticker game.

So… okay. I’ll just dodge the freak-out and the pain by sucking in my lumpy bits and walking through the scanner. I’m generally not shy with my body, I don’t travel often, and I’m not on a first-name basis with the x-ray/MRI tech at the local clinic, so there shouldn’t be an issue.

But wait! There’s more!

I have a genital piercing (a vertical clitoral-hood bar to be specific), and the horror stories have already begun circulating among the metallically-infused about pat-downs, hassles, and fucking strip-searches following these scans. Is it possible these stories are just stories? Urban legends for the new era? Sure. Does it matter to the lizard-brain nested in my head? Absofuckinglutely not.

I am a transexual man. Being “caught” by TSA as a person of transexual past could literally mean my death. Transgender people have the highest rate of hate-crime and the highest rate as murder victims in the USA.

I don’t fly. And I won’t at any point in the foreseeable future. I haven’t for several years due to the invasive screening I had in 2004 that left me with nightmares.

I am a rape survivor. And I know that if I am forced to have the kind of circle jerk that I’ve seen on video–where a bunch of TSA screeners surround me and one of them touches me in very private places–there is a real chance I’m going to freak out. Traveling is always very stressful, in part because I have visual processing issues and epilepsy (see above; i.e, fractured head). Add onto that reliving a painful part of my past–someone touching me and I have no ability to say “I don’t consent“–I am not a happy traveler.

I’m getting ready for a business trip right now. I’m on the job hunt too, since I’ll be laid off next May. I’m hoping to make some important connections with these meetings.

Am I worried that I won’t make a good impression on the bigwigs that I’m going to meet? Am I spending time crunching data to make a good impression when I present my TPS reports?

I’m freaking out about just getting on the fucking plane. That’s what I’m spending all my energy on. And that’s not right.

For my friend with a colostomy bag. For my sister with a partial breast reconstruction. For the oh-so-many other women who have been raped or molested.

There has to be a better way.

I'm completely with Bug Girl. There has to be a better, less-invasive way to make people feel a little better. More importantly, there has to be a way to do this that doesn't step all over--by design--those who have something real to worry about.

Yes, by design. We don't know where the next attack will come from. We don't know what it will look like. What we do know is that it will almost certainly look different than any previous attack. And what that means is that screeners have to look for the different. At least, they need to do that if they're going to do a proper job of things instead of assuming a terrorist has no creativity.

That means that anything a standard-issue government employee doesn't recognize or understand is cause for suspicion. Really, that's always been the case, but now there's a new twist. Instead of looking at our luggage, the TSA is looking at us. They're turning their attention from what we're carrying to what we are.

That is the unconscionable problem with this new scheme. Being different, under this scheme, is exactly what will get you treated with suspicion, with disdain, with aggression--treated like a terrorist. Being different. Having nothing you need to hide is an amazing privilege, and it is a very different thing than not being a threat.

Want to see who has that privilege? Take a look at Jay Rosen's list of people in the media who have decided that the appropriate response to everyone's concerns is to tell us to "grow up." The funny thing about that list is that these are the people who have so much privilege they've never needed to grow up. They've never had to figure out how to deal with the stigma and loss of opportunity that comes with being a sexual minority, surviving sexual assault, or presenting a visible disability. They live in a society where they've never needed to figure out how to love and desire despite being heaped with shame for the very shapes of their bodies. Their happy childhoods, at least in this respect, continue to this day, but they tell us to grow up.

They tell us that the costs are small (although they fail to note the lack of benefits from this new program), and they are--to them. They're being borne by others (who include, of course, the traditionally visible ethnic minorities). The quotes I listed above are from those describing their fears, but those fears are proving prescient.

I went through the body scan first," she said. "And after I went through the body scan, a bunch of officers came over, took my bags and basically put me in a private room and I had no idea what was going on.”

Alyssa is diabetic and wears a small wireless insulin pump, which was noticed in the body scan.

“I had a sweat suit on and had to lift parts of my sweat suit up and parts of my sweat suit down for them to check,” she said. “They basically patted me down in my private parts from head to toe."

“I was so upset. I tried to remain as calm as I could through this process. I was treated like a criminal and I was afraid anything I would have said or done maybe would not have allowed me to get back to Austin.”

She continued, "And after I was finally cleared to go to the gate, I just started crying. In my whole life I’ve never felt like such a victim before.”

The 3-year-breast cancer survivor agreed, but was then asked by two female Charlotte TSA agents to go to a private room for further screening, and they began what Ms Bossi described as an aggressive pat down.

She said they stopped when they got around to feeling her right breast - the one she had lost through her illness.

Ms Bossi said: 'She put her full hand on my breast and said, 'What is this?'. And I said, 'It's my prosthesis because I've had breast cancer.' And she said, 'Well, you'll need to show me that'.'

She was then apparently asked to remove the prosthetic breast from her bra and show it to the TSA agents.

I stood there, an American citizen, a mom traveling with a baby with special needs formula, sexually assaulted by a government official. I began shaking and felt completely violated, abused and assaulted by the TSA agent. I shook for several hours, and woke up the next day shaking.

Here is why I was sexually assaulted. She never told me the new body search policy. She never told me that she was going to touch my private parts. She never told me when or where she was going to touch me. She did not inform me that a private screening was available. She did not inform me of my rights that were a part of these new enhanced patdown procedures.

When I booked my ticket, I was given no information that the TSA had changed their wand and unintrusive patdown procedures to “enhanced” patdown procedures that involved the touching of all parts of your body, including breasts and vagina on women and testicles and penis on men. I was not informed by any signs on the front side of security about the new procedures. I had not seen any media coverage about the issue, so I had no idea that this was a new government sanctioned policy.

Another important piece in this story, the Dayton airport does not have the new body scanners. I was not given any other search options. It was enhanced patdown, or nothing. (And I would have opted for the body scanner, if I were going to be subject to a sexual assault.)

Read all too much more at ACLU's site.

This is why, as I go through airport security this morning (right about the time this posts), I won't be going through any scanner. It isn't because I have anything to hide. It's because I don't. It's because the invasive search can't really hurt me. I know what will happen. I don't have any medical equipment that can be dislodged or touch triggers or body shame.

What I do have is time and the right to demand that if someone wants to get that personal with me, they look me in the eyes. What I have is the willingness to talk to the TSA agent about what kind of job satisfaction they're feeling these days.

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