Today’s my first day back from a spectacular whirlwind book tour, having done 12 Reality Bites Back events (readings, signings, panel discussions and book parties) in 8 cities in just under 3 weeks. I’m equal parts thrilled, inspired, and exhausted; I promise to post some report-backs, readers gallery pictures, and more once I get some rest.
But for now, something completely different. I want to share with you a quick reflection on the TSA controversy, based on my experience flying home to NY from D.C. yesterday on the heels of a large and dynamic crowd for the final reading at Busboys and Poets.
I Just want to share that I refused the backscatter cancer box at Dulles airport yesterday, and my fellow Americans are now all protected by the supposedly potentially explosive power of my breasts. Don’t you all feel safer?
The agent at the machine acted extremely confused as to why I would opt for the pat-down (and made me wait about five minutes before anyone even bothered to notify a female TSA agent that I was waiting to be frisked). I was nervous about the search, having seen clips and heard discussion about how unusually invasive/thorough it is allowed to be. But when I finally went through the TSA’s molestation merry go round, my particular junk-groper… wasn’t all that gropey. She specifically said she was going to use the back of her hand (not the front of her hand and fingers, which the new search allows). Nothing more than the usual pat-downs I’ve dealt with from TSA in previous years when I’ve been chosen as the 1-in-whatever-# for random searches. It was quick, and a bit awkward/clumsy, but not particularly assaultive.
Now, what this says to me is that these “enhanced searches” leave WAY too much up to the whims of each individual TSA agent. There do not seem to be strict or transparent guidelines as to what the search entails, what the limits are, and apparently no uniform or comprehensive training as to how agents will conduct these searches (even regarding kids, the elderly, and people with medical conditions). I happened to luck upon an agent who wanted to do the search quickly, with minimal discomfort and minimal groping. But stories are proliferating about TSA agents over-aggressively administering the searches in ways that have been insensitive and offensive at best, and abuses of power at worst, including searches that have:
— broken a bladder cancer patient’s urostomy bag despite ample warning and disclaimer about medical condition, drenching a mortified passenger in his own urine, which he wasn’t allowed to immediately clean up.
— included this outrageous overstep: “The woman who checked me reached her hands inside my underwear and felt her way around”
— breast cancer survivors with prostheses being poked, prodded and having their prostheses literally jiggled up and down while they stand humiliated in public view
— 3-year-olds being given full-body pat-downs (um, this isn’t supposed to undermine parents’ attempts to teach their kids about “good touch/bad touch” and not letting strangers touch their bodies?)
And something I haven’t seen discussed widely: the fact that we live in
a country in which incest, child abuse, rape and other forms of sexual assault are all so prevalent that these searches could be extremely triggering for literally millions of sexual abuse survivors. How could it *not* be triggering for at least some survivors, when the process involves strangers actively and aggressively touching a person’s genitals, in uncomfortable and potentially embarrassing ways, without that person choosing for this to happen? (And no, I don’t consider it a “choice” when the only options are A: cancer box and B: grope-fest. After all, as Arizona State U. physics professor Peter Rez has asserted, while the “risk of getting a fatal cancer from the screening is minuscule, it’s about equal to the probability that an airplane will get blown up by a terrorist.” Meaning that they could cause as may fatalities as terrorism, which ostensibly they are in place to mitigate–could there be any clearer case for not using them as a part of our security theater?)
I am thankful that my TSA experience wasn’t particularly gropey and didn’t feel assaultive, though it was definitely uncomfortable. I chose not to ask for a private screening room, because I wanted others to know that they can (and I believe should, considering we really don’t know enough about the potentially awful health risks of the backscatter machines) refuse the cancer box and opt for a search. But I was really disturbed by the fact that the searches can be outrageously intrusive and aggressive or relatively benign, and there’s no way to know until some stranger’s fingers are poking your genitals and/or breasts, (or not, as the case may be).
Thoughts on the TSA machines and enhanced searches? News coverage or blog posts on the topic you think I should see? Personal experiences with backscatter and/or grope-searches during (or
before/after) holiday travel? Share your opinions in the comments.
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