Airport Insecurity

By Jeffry Mallow

Published December 31, 2004, issue of December 31, 2004.
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Ann is a 64-year-old grandmother with an artificial hip, and a 10-inch scar to prove it. The titanium in her prosthetic sets off metal detectors every time she passes through an airport. Ann presents a card from her physician attesting to the implant. The security officials ignore her card and single her out every time for a “secondary screening.”

Until recently, this was a non-contact metal search using a wand: annoying, but not intrusive. Now, she is subjected to a humiliating contact search of her breasts and between her legs. Sometimes this is done in a booth; more often it is done in full view of other travelers. According to a recent CNN report, about a dozen harassment complaints a week are lodged by women who feel they were inappropriately groped. The Transportation Security Administration has received hundreds of complaints. The American Civil Liberties Union, which is also logging complaints, told CNN that it viewed these searches as “an open invitation for harassment.”

Responding to the CNN report, a Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman claimed that “the new search is performed in an extremely respectful manner.” Screeners, “in most circumstances” of the same gender, are required to use the backs of their hands when touching breasts, groin and buttocks. “I don’t think the screeners specifically enjoy it,” she assured CNN.

Ann, who is my wife, doesn’t care whether the screeners enjoy it or not. As they run their hands between and over her breasts, and up and down her legs, including her genitals, she seethes with anger and humiliation. She feels degraded no less than she would if she were touched this way by any other stranger — and indeed more so, since these assailants are operating with the full authority of the government.

The new screening procedure is a recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, that passengers selected for a secondary screening be checked for explosives. “Checked” has been interpreted as a hands-on body search. That presumably includes men. Yet almost no men have complained. Does this mean they are more willing than women to have their private parts touched? That does not seem likely, to say the least.

No one has yet statistically confirmed whether, as it seems from the complaints, the hands-on body search is applied disproportionately to women. But the government has effectively admitted that this is the case, since the search rationale uniformly quoted by its airport employees is last August’s Russian flight bombings, in which one of the suicide bombers purportedly hid an explosive in her bra. This conjecture has never been verified. What has been reported, by The New York Times, is that Russian air security guards are easily bribed, and this is apparently what the Chechen women did.

Is America’s search policy simply insensitive, or is it malign? It is probably both. A blanket edict to subject passengers who set off the detectors to a secondary screening — regardless, for example, of documentary and physical evidence of prosthetics — is just thoughtlessly insensitive. But the decision to selectively subject women to a hands-on search suggests assertion of a proprietary right over the bodies of women that echoes in many of the policies of this administration, from welfare “reform” to reproductive freedom. Why is it axiomatic that male prisoners at Abu Ghraib are humiliated by genital touching — indeed humiliation was the goal — while women at American airports are expected to accept the same treatment with equanimity?

Security checks can be both effective and respectful. In Europe and Israel, places which have had at least as much experience with air terrorism as the United States, the security personnel are highly educated and well trained. They carry out efficient and rational screening, including asking probing questions of passengers, searching for those who fit various profiles, and recognizing the special case of people with prosthetics. Usually, Ann’s card is accepted without further examination; at most, she is taken into a private booth and asked to show her scar.

El Al’s screening procedure is a model of rigor. Selected passengers are asked: “What is the purpose of your trip? Where will you be staying? Do you know people there?” The questions may be about the person’s profession or field of study, and the guards are educated enough to detect liars. A few passengers are taken into a private booth, where they are asked to empty their carry-on luggage, and in some cases patted down. In countless trips to Israel, I have on occasion experienced this procedure and found it respectful; Ann has never been singled out for it.

The United States, by contrast, chooses to humiliate people who pose no risk and fit no profile, simply because the security personnel are not highly educated and not trained to do anything but follow mindless directives. Let’s hope that the government finally gets around to paying attention to real security — for example, examining checked luggage as well as containers arriving by land and sea, rather than the smoke and mirrors that have occupied the Bush administration for the last four years. If and when the government does so, preserving the dignity of the traveling public, especially elderly ladies with prosthetics, should be high on its list.

Jeffry Mallow, a professor of physics at Loyola University Chicago, is treasurer of the Forward Association.






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