I Reject Your Airport Security Theatre

I’m not going to be party to any “security” that in actuality is based on nothing more than institutionalized bigotry and acculturated fears.
Publish date:
September 25, 2012
travel, airports, flying, security theatre, civil liberties

California airports are on their way to getting the next generation of body scanners. They're apparently supposed to be less revealing than the original models, which people understandably were not at all comfortable with. Instead of a detailed image of the passenger, the new machines provide an outline of a human body with points of interest marked on the image for further evaluation.

Remember when body scanners were a new thing? I feel like it wasn’t that long ago, and now we’re on the next gen, indicating that they are here to stay whether we like it or not, and I do not. I try to fly through the dwindling number of airports that don’t use them, and when I’m forced to go out of one that does, I request a patdown.

The reason I opt for the patdown isn’t because of privacy concerns or health worries, though I think both those things are legitimate.

It’s pretty evident that the technology violates privacy and has been abused — look at the list of incidents involving graphic images from scanners being distributed. I firmly believe that people have a right to decide who gets to see them naked or mostly so and in what context, and people who are uncomfortable with the level of detail offered by scanners are absolutely entitled to refuse them.

I grew up in pretty much the opposite of a body-modest community, and thus don’t really care who sees my body; to me there is nothing sexual or particularly fascinating about a naked body unless the body’s owner chooses to make something out of it. Thus, I had no problem skinny dipping in the Pacific on my first day of high school with a bunch of people I’d just met, or shucking down to plunge into the Navarro River whether or not people other than our friends happened to be sitting around. Safe to say my objections aren’t about how much of my body you can see, basically.

Nor is my resistance about health worries, although those are also perfectly reasonable. There’s a lot we don’t know about the technology, and I’m reminded of the fact that X-rays were once used as novelties for shoe fitting because everyone thought they were harmless. Treating airline passengers as an experimental population makes me nervous, and those who have concerns (like those who already have a high exposure to radiation because of occupational or health-related reasons) are right to be worried.

No, my ire is purely based on the fact that I find body scanning an utterly offensive act of security theatre designed to keep us complacent and terrified, afraid of our shadows, convinced that more restrictions on civil liberties are necessary to “keep us safe.” I hate what has happened to civil liberties in the US in the last 11 years, and Airport Security Theatre is pretty much a crystallization of everything I loathe; a performance to shock and awe, rather than anything particularly meaningful or helpful.

As I stand on the mat with my feet centered on the yellow footprints to mark the spot, I watch a long line of passengers slowly snake through the scanner. They look tired and defeated, a little sad as they shuffle through with their shoes off, following the directions of pimple-faced TSA workers with bored expressions. I wait for my “female assist” to arrive, staring across at the other people in the patdown area. We’re usually evenly split between people of color (danger, Will Robinson!), covering women (modesty is a thought crime!), and people like me who opted for the patdown, with some overlap between the groups (which naturally triggers the klaxon – oh no, a Black Muslimah wearing hijab!).

The TSA worker usually runs her hands over me as lightly and perfunctorily as possible, making the whole thing out as even more of a joke. Often, they get confused and forget to put me through the metal detector. I flew recently with a huge pillbox in my pocket, which she didn’t even notice. She also didn’t notice the two inhalers stuffed into my bra, which would have triggered the metal detector if they’d remembered to make me walk through it. Meanwhile, she picked through the natural hair of the Black woman next to me with extreme and exhaustive detail.

I still won’t be using the machines no matter how private and safe they’re supposed to be because it isn’t about that for me, at all. It’s about my desire to protect my right to freedom of movement and body, about my deep hatred of staged proceedings intended to make people feel threatened and nervous in the airport, thus convincing them that further clampdowns on civil liberties are necessary. It’s about the fact that I have a friend who can’t fly because she finds the patdown too traumatic and is a covering Christian with legitimate modesty worries about the body scanning machines, and she’s far from the only person in that position.

It’s about the fact that the TSA routinely abuses passengers, doesn’t even follow its own stated policies, and takes a warped kind of pleasure in racial, cultural, and religious profiling. And I’m not going to be party to any “security” that in actuality is based on nothing more than institutionalized bigotry and acculturated fears.

I can think of far better things to spend $245 million on, you know?

Image credits: Amazon, Patrick Byrne.