Monday, December 6, 2010
The young, male TSA officer walks slowly down the line of airline passengers waiting to clear security. He looks down at tickets, up at faces, then points to those whom he selects for additional screening. In a theoretically possible, albeit unlikely, random sample, when the officer reaches the end of the long queue, we find that every passenger he has chosen for further scrutiny is female.
As I watched this scene unfold at Washington, DC’s Reagan-National Airport recently, the moment that struck me most was when the officer looked down at my ticket and seemed about to pull me aside. But when he raised his eyes to see my face, he veered his blue-gloved finger, already in mid-air, toward the woman standing behind me.
I readily admit I do not know what was in that young man's head, but the facts of the incident are straightforward: He appeared about to select me and, after he saw my face, opted for a female instead; further, everyone he picked was a woman.
Since the TSA stepped up its use of full-body x-ray scanners and invasive hand searches at America’s airports, almost every female traveler I know has at least one story of being scanned and/or patted down – and in some cases, they advise it happens every time they fly. Meanwhile, very few of the men I speak to report anything similar.
This is, of course, a wildly unscientific survey of my personal acquaintances, but anecdotal evidence is mounting that TSA officers are inappropriately directing their newfound powers to prod and peer at female passengers. Consider the father who reports hearing a TSA officer tell his colleague by walkie-talkie, “We’ve got another cutie coming through,” before sending the man’s teenage daughter into the scanner; or Eliana Sutherland, who claims two male TSA agents ogled her up and down at Orlando International Airport before one of them pulled her aside for enhanced screening; or Alyson Galen, who says Philadelphia TSA agents selected her for a thorough pat-down because she wore a Dallas Cowboys’ jersey.
The TSA does not provide information on how passengers are selected for enhanced screening, except to say that the process is "random," and these new measures are in place due to "classified intelligence" of imminent threats. But if you'd like further insight into that "random" process and you'd like to see some of that "classified intelligence" – as well as your fellow Americans naked – simply call the TSA employment number advertised on your pizza box and apply today!
TSA Chief John Pistole assures us that officers never see the naked images of the passengers they are "assisting," since the x-ray scans are viewed and deleted in a separate room, and those looking at the images "never interact" with the scanned person. As to the scans themselves, the TSA helpfully shows us, on signs posted at airport security checkpoints, as well on their website, "What Officers See," and it is a blurry image of the photographic quality usually reserved for sightings of the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot.
If that is what the actual scans looked like, not even the TSA could defend using them, so with all due respect, Mr. Pistole, serve it on toast. More believable representations are available in many of the television news reports on the new procedures available online.
But let's give TSA the benefit of the doubt on the privacy aspect, assuming they do not save or store images, and that officers don't see their "assisted" passengers nude. Human nature being what it is, how hard is it to suppose that if you are working a menial, hourly job at the airport, and you have opaque, random power to choose people to be exposed naked to whichever of your chums is manning the peep booth, you would be tempted to send pleasing shapes through the scanner, on the understanding he will do the same when it's your turn to do the ogling?
The TSA says its officers are 60 percent male, and 40 percent female, and there could be reasons besides prurience that officers might single out travelers for scrutiny – as in the case of Ms. Galen, above.
Some have proposed, bizarrely, that such potential abuses would be averted by paying TSA officers better. But a more practical, economical option is available: The government should stop taking naked pictures of people.
President Barack Obama has defended the TSA’s new procedures, while conceding they are, “a huge inconvenience for all of us.”
"Us," is it? Has the First Family found themselves wrapped up in this predicament? "Mr. President, you're fine, but Michelle, Malia and Sasha will all have to be scanned. Don't worry – the person who'll see them naked is 50 feet away and won’t interact with them – apart from seeing every inch of their bodies, of course.”
America, this is just wrong, and it must end now.
Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.