Fear of Flying (in the Age of TSA Pat-Downs)

 Fear of Flying (in the Age of TSA Pat-Downs)

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Aggressive pat downs? Full body scans? And you thought paying for the first checked bag was a travesty? Three perspectives on what Americans might be checking in in the name of security.

Abandon All Rights Ye Who Enter Airports

by Andrew Lam

“Abandon all hope ye who enter here,” so goes the phrase inscribed on the gate of hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Replace “hope” with “rights” and that phrase seems oddly apropos for the entrance to all American airports these days.

Indeed, since 9/11 the dust from those destroyed Twin Towers in New York City continue to form a cloud of suspicion, blanketing the country. Nearly a decade has passed and Americans have grown used to being on the permanent lookout for terror. We have learned to report folks who wear garbs in certain ways, who behave a little differently on the plane. Even famous journalist Juan Williams admits on Fox television to being “nervous” and “worried” with those who “are in Muslim garb.”

That is, we’ve learned to live permanently with Code Yellow and Orange. It is perhaps why while some are complaining, a vast many more are complacent with the new full-body scanners at airports. People don’t want to be groped or scanned, but people are willing to go through the humiliating processes in the name of safety and security. In newspaper articles, many of those interviewed used terms like “trade-off” or “compromise” when talking about privacy versus safety. One in particular said he’s grown “immune to the procedures.” A few days ago a new CBS poll found that a whopping 81 percent of Americans say the full-body scanners should be used at airports

“The airport is no longer part of America,” said a friend who is a frequent flyer. “Mention the word bomb loud enough even in casual conversation and you are likely be reported.” Say “bomb” to the TSA agent and you might create a massive traffic jam.

In one case of tragicomedy, a passenger at Chicago O’Hare Airport en route to Turkey, was asked about a device that turned out to be a penis pump. It was unclear how he said it, as he was standing next to his mother, but the word pump was heard as “bomb” by a TSA agent and the man faced three years of prison. 

Another incident involved an Iraqi wearing a T-shirt with Arabic inscription. He was not allowed on the plane at John F. Kennedy Airport. What did the inscription mean in Arabic? It said, ironically, “We Will Not Be Silent.”

And if you want to create pandemonium at San Francisco International Airport, and turn Code Orange to Red, try wearing an image of Bin Laden on your chest. In a sense, one checks in not just one’s luggage, but also one’s tongue at airports.

Now, with groping and full body scans as the norm, one gives up one’s rights to privacy along with free speech. “Are TSA pat-downs and full-body scans unconstitutional?” asks the Christian Science Monitor

But this seems somehow a moot point. The First Amendment is already seriously compromised, so why not the Fourth? The Monitor quoted William Schroeder, a professor of law at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, on the constitutionality of scanners and the Fourth Amendment problem who said, “I don’t think that argument is going to carry the day, given that people have hidden bombs on their bodies in ways that cannot be found through less invasive searches… you’ve consented. You don’t have to fly – that’s your choice.”

But even if you don’t fly you could find that the whole country is becoming a kind of "mega-airport," where you watch your language, your neighbor's briefcase and your neighbor -- and your neighbor does the same – all the while Uncle Sam’s electronic eye watches everyone? What if in the name of security, we are willing to give up more rights, not at the airport but everywhere else?

I have learned to accept the nature of the airport, but I think it is only tolerable as long as we know it will not last, that we are passengers to some hopeful and brighter destination. What I fear most is that the phrase “Abandon All Rights Ye Who Enter Here” may no longer be inscribed on the entrance, but that it is also etched above the exit sign.

Andrew Lam is the author of East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres.

Full Body Scan or Full Body Grope? It’s Your Choice

By Shirin Sadeghi

If you're planning on traveling for the holidays these next few days, you might reconsider air travel: it's very dangerous according to the Transportation Security Administration. So dangerous that only individuals whose bodily privacy has been invaded can be trusted to board planes in the United States.

The TSA announced this week that air travelers now must choose between a full body scan or a full body grope. Understandably, people are upset.

But what makes this week's announcement so important is that for the first time minority travelers will not be alone in facing the brunt of "random" checks: now, everybody gets groped.

The poster boy for public anger with the policy is 31-year-old John Tyner who famously protested "If you touch my junk, I'll have you arrested" to an airport security officer in San Diego. He recorded the incident and it became international news.

But long before Tyner, there have been millions of Arab Americans, Indian Americans, Native Americans, African Americans, and other minorities who have had to silently endure the highly invasive techniques that have now been applied to everyone.

“I didn't want to question it because as I was approaching the first agent who saw my ID, I had just finished speaking with my mother in Arabic,” says Sara, an Arab American born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, discussing a recent incident at the San Francisco International Airport. She says over the years she has endured one humiliating invasion of her privacy after another and has always been lied to that her searches are “random.”

“It’s not just the disrespect, it’s the threats – big or small – that I might not be allowed on my flight or that I’ll have to deal with the law just because I didn’t want to be molested in public by some racist who wants to belittle me,” says Vik, an Indian-American who, like Sara, has been forced to suffer regular “random” checks at U.S. airports.

While public anger over the new policy continues to rise, the real test will be how many airports choose to heed a warning from the San Mateo County District Attorney’s office that inappropriate pat-downs by security officers will be prosecuted. In the meantime, Congress has now introduced HR 6416 “The American Traveler Dignity Act,” shining some hope on the possibility that laws might be changed to give travelers back their rights

For a Black Man, Airports Are the Great Equalizer

By Kevin Weston

I’ve never been trifled with at the airport and I love it. I feel almost American shuffling through the lines and dodging passersby on my way to a flight.

As a black man with dreadlocks (post-Afro), I blend in at the airport. In any other situation on the streets of Oakland or San Francisco, I would be the hunted one. The other.

In the airport, I’m a native-born, God and country-loving patriot compared to [potential] STEROTYPICAL terrorist-looking cats.

The outcry over profiling in airports and intrusive body scans and pat downs are coming from folks that are used to thinking of themselves as protected people in America.

Those of us on the other side of that paradigm – the ones least protected and least trusted on the streets of this country – might think that the airport is the great equalizer in America. The one place where everyone is suspect. And people like me are a little further down on the list of the most suspect behind Arabs, those-that-look-Arab or dress in Arab-looking outfits, Mexicans, Africans from Muslim countries, South Asians and maybe white boys with Muslim names. Welcome to our world, everyone who has no problem with racial profiling on the streets.

My slave name, my born-in-the-USA tone of brown skin and my Bay Area native accented Ebonic English allow me to slide through SFO. Kevin Weston is one of you now. An American. Finally.