Op-ed: The Opt-Out Shame Game

Op-ed: The Opt-Out Shame Game

“Female opt-out!” The cry was volleyed around the Detroit Airport security screening area like a hot potato dressed with derision, topped with shame. This is the technique employed by our U.S. Transportation Security Administration at the entry point to American air travel, where I often feel my stomach tighten at the sight of the Total-Recall, Martian-prison-camp-like body scanners used in the name of security. That is, instead of in the name of the security-industrial complex that it really is.

Since day one of coming face-to-face with both the hulking beige body scanner and the twin-electrode-box backscatter machines, I’ve held fast to my Fourth Amendment rights. That’s the one ensuring our rights “against unreasonable searches and seizures” by our government. To me, “unreasonable” is being subjected to even small doses of both disdain and radiation. Both of which, for a travel writer like me, add up to a harmful amount of transdermal rays invading my organs.  

“Unreasonable” also applies to having a bitter TSA agent snap on her rubber gloves and run her chilly hands between my breasts, butt cheeks and crotch, grope along my pants’ waistline, and cup my breasts and belly in front of the tired, poor, huddled masses who are today’s air travelers.

It’s so deeply disrespectful, even just explaining the process here is beneath us.

Alas, it’s not only the violation of my personal privacy and not-unreasonable sensibilities that mandates my opt-out. Part of my beef is the blatant government sell-out to backscatter-imaging technology manufacturers like Rapiscan and American Science and Engineering.

It can’t be a coincidence that their revenue and stock prices grow in tandem with their government-lobbying budgets. In fact, they’re probably great, growing firms to own stock in. Especially when they win big TSA contracts like the $12 million one Rapiscan got in September 2011, for the “Advanced Technology Upgrade” of our country’s checkpoint-screening systems. This contract showed a great ROI (return on investment) for Rapiscan’s $410,000 documented dollars spent lobbying our elected officials last year.


Even more disturbing: This matter of airport security has led me to the impossible reality of agreeing with a Republican congressman about personal liberty and squandered federal tax dollars. Back in 2010, Rep. Ted Poe of Texas said:

“[T]he populace is giving up more rights in the name of alleged security. These body scanners are a violation of the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures … There must be a better way to have security at airports than taking pornographic photographs of our citizens, including children, and then giving apparent kickbacks to political hacks.”

(FYI, the kickbacks he’s referring to are the ones George W. Bush’s Dept. of Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff was allegedly earning while advocating for scanners made by Rapiscan, a client of his consulting firm. Didn’t they do a great job picking his firm? True corporate savvy!)

(Also, the “pornographic photographs” Poe refers to are the images captured by the big beige monsters that reveal all manner of protrusions, lumps and curves.)

The humiliation of the experience is exacerbated by dealing with the two types of TSA agents. One is power-hungry/-tripping, enjoys intimidation, and—one can only speculate—a lonely soul. The other is mired in a woefully inadequate salary (sing it, sister), bored to tears, and alternating between bitter and apathetic. But one who also derives a little satisfaction from this fabricated position of power.

However, let’s not be irrational. We know that airplanes have been prime terrorist targets for decades. Like any powerful steel vehicle, planes can easily become very large weapons. The nearly unfathomably complex task of making planes reliably safe modes of transportation, rather than flying bombs or kidnapping pods, is where the pride of the TSA lies. Rightfully so.

   But the agency also is overwhelmingly reactionary. They were so quick to ban liquids and shoes through the metal detectors following isolated incidents involving liquids and shoes, I’m surprised we don’t have to reveal our undergarments since the “underwear bomber” got caught with gunpowder in his.

The newsflash is, duh, X-rays are, inherently, invasive. Radiation is an unnecessary risk factor in what shouldn’t be the harmful experience of boarding a plane. To pass through a body scanner is a violation of personhood, dappled with disrespect and sprinkled with insult. Don’t we risk cancer in enough passive ways than to need the government to mandate it before and after every flight?

The long and short of this air-travel pickle we’re in, is that we’re stuck with it for the time being. By opting out, I am living a classic case of passive resistance to an unfair, intrusive system that has a increasing stranglehold on our airports. As usual, with this many dollars invested and government officials either ignoring the hot-potato issue or living high on the hog from it, the system is bound to stick for a long while.

Patience becomes the only virtue that matters for one who prefers to live gracefully, and to opt-out.

If only we could revert to the good old days when Hare Krishnas and patriarchal condescension were the low points of air travel. Meanwhile…trains, boats and buses have never looked so good.