Tag Archives: TSA

Of Fancy

Later today—at this time of morning the use of the word “day” feels ironic—I’ll be on a plane heading out of civilization. Well, to be more precise I’ll be flying to a place from which I can drive out of civilization. Airports only serve cities, after all. Until we get individual drone service to remote locations I guess we’re stuck with jets and their inconveniences. I have to admit I’m more nervous than usual about this. I’ve been reading the stories about airline thugs who, like terrorists, beat and drag passengers off the plane. I try to take extra care to choose an undesirable location on the jet—next to the restroom, for example, or really near an engine—so that an airline employee would rather wait for the next flight than to sit here. I remember when flying used to be fun.

One year I’d lingered a little too long with my girlfriend and I had to rush to Logan Airport to catch my flight to Pittsburgh for the holidays. Arriving maybe half an hour before my scheduled flight, like a pre-murderous O. J. Simpson I ran through the concourse with nary a TSA agent in sight. To the what I am now sure was annoyance of the other passengers, I arrived at the gate just as the door was closing. With a sigh they let me board. I tried to ignore the angry stares of those already seated and belted. We all made it to Pittsburgh, however, in time to celebrate with our families. Now flying means adding at least two hours to your travel time so that you can get through security that makes you feel no more secure. I’m frisked and prodded and made to feel guilty for doing nothing more than wanting to get away from civilization for a while. We call it civilization anyway.

The wait in the airport is the hard thing. They’ll offer wifi, but you’ll have to pay for it. I’ve trained myself to read on the bus, but when you’re awaiting the announcement of your flight when you’ll have to line up just like at the Port Authority, it’s difficult to concentrate on your book. You don’t want to be lost in another world when they call your zone. There are, after all, airline employees hovering, seeking empty seats. I remind myself at the end of this ordeal a lack of civilization awaits. This is why we do it, and there’s a reason we call it getting away. Time to end this flight of fancy and head toward an actual flight that will be anything but fancy.

Welcoming the Stranger

Profiling is alive and well. In our post-9/11 state, we are even more suspicious than those who are different than we were before. After the Ferguson decision, profiling once again led to unrest. If we didn’t do it so much, cases like this wouldn’t be necessary. If we didn’t shoot first and ask questions later, how much more would we understand? It happens, unfortunately, at all levels. I have no desire to trivialize the tragedy that continues to unfold over race relations, but divisions of those perceived potentially to cause trouble occur at even smaller, less significant levels. We tell ourselves that it is possible to gauge a person’s potential for violence based on a number of factors which happen to fall along lines of gender and race. Your typical airport screening is an example.

As my readers know, I object to the millimeter wave scanners in use in many airports. In general, I object to being treated as a criminal when I have been a pacifist since high school. (And likely before.) I am treated like a law-abiding citizen everywhere except the airport. Flying home from San Diego, I noticed that at check-in men traveling alone were separated out and sent through the scanner. The side on which I had to pull off my shoes and belt and coat, empty my laptop from my bag, and stand on the chilly floor awaiting an opt-out, was very masculine indeed. The woman in front of me, who looked far more frazzled than I did, was sent to the metal detector, along with her stroller. No threat there. Being male, however, is always a threat. Two priests stood before me in line. They didn’t go for the pat-down.

Potential terrorists, all.

Potential terrorists, all.

On the plane, many passengers began to talk about the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature meeting. After all, about half the passengers had just come from the conference. For me, I was ready for some quiet. Some time to center myself after playing the extrovert and talking to people I don’t know for four long days. As debates about religion broke out on the Boeing 737, I began to understand why religious folk are often profiled as potential threats. Their convictions, public and firmly held, are more likely to remain constant in the face of contrary evidence than are most opinions. I wonder if airport security couldn’t save us all some time, money, and embarrassment. Couldn’t they just ask passengers to declare their faith? Of course, we’d need to find some other employment for government officials whose duties involving feeling strangers with latex gloves before wishing them a pleasant trip. While high above the planet riots are breaking out down below because we distrust those who are different.

Free Freedom

A weary-looking TSA official asked me why I opted out of the full-body scanner at the airport recently. As always, I responded that it is against my religion. The haunting lyrics from a Larry Norman song waft through my head; “I was born and raised an orphan, in a land that once was free…” It used to be, when I was little, that you were innocent until proven guilty. As I stand in line at the airport, next to an eerily humming x-ray machine that is examining all my secrets, learning what I’m reading without ever having to read my blog, I watch fellow citizens step inside a sci-fi-inspired glass chamber while being bombarded with God-knows-what so that any unnatural contusions might be spotted and analyzed. They raise their hands above their heads like outlaws in the old west. We are all guilty now, until proven innocent. If you are Trayvon Martin, you pay for the assumption of guilt with your life. Don’t worry, Mr. Zimmerman, you’ll be acquitted.

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In my darker moments, I wonder who benefits from a government that keeps increasing amounts of data on its citizens while cutting programs to ensure their comfort and health. We have elected a police force, not officials of the people, by the people, for the people. Vigilantes can literally get away with murder, as long as the skin-tone algorithm is correct, but if you’re perverted enough to want to fly, you have nothing about which your government is not interested. Who is being protected here? Who is being kept safe? A stranger has his gloved hands on my crotch. I’m feeling a little more than vulnerable.

Protest is a sign of love in this troubled world. If I step inside that glass chamber and raise my arms, I am declaring that I am guilty. Let me prove my innocence to you. Technology has made our private lives so easy to scrutinize. I used to think the future envisioned by Jacques Ellul was just a touch paranoid. I’m now beginning to think he didn’t go far enough. This computer on my lap can be like a TSA official in my own home. My website visits may be traced and analyzed, and my self-publish words misconstrued. And if I go to the store at night, a stranger can follow and shoot me with the blessings of our legal system. Of what are we so afraid? Is it time to stand our ground yet?

Flight of Fancy

I’m about fully recovered from my recent visit to Texas. Travel is perhaps the greatest form of education. After having my regular government pat-down, and hearing the airport loudspeakers warning me not even to joke with a TSA official, I was in a subdued mood as I awaited my flight. Airlines have learned to fine-tune human vanity. I know they are hurting for money, as many deregulated industries are, and there must be a marketing trick to get people to pay different prices for the arriving at the same destination at the same time. One of the most ridiculous is that of United Airlines’ Priority Access. Don’t get me wrong, I like United Airlines well enough. Their service has generally been on time, and they make being a human sardine as comfortable as possible. Some of the in-flight snacks, if you can afford them, are actually pretty tasty. But first you have to get onto the plane.

Of course, active duty military are free to board at any time. Tree-hugging pacifists, wait your turn. The part that really gets to me is that those held in special esteem by the Airline (i.e., those who can afford to pay more) are invited to board via the “Priority Access Lane.” This “lane” is created by laying a ratty carpet on the left side (or right side, for some gates) of an imaginary line composed of a couple of those retractable belt stanchions. To the left, sheep. To the right, goats. (Or vice-versa. We’re pretty hard to tell apart.) I’ve written about this before, but what caught my attention this time around was that a seeing-eye dog was boarded along with his human, via the “Priority Access Lane.” As I watched my canine brother sauntering towards the jetway, I was lost in thought. Not one sparrow falls to the ground. The privileged are boarding with a dog.

On my return trip home, at the ironically named George Bush International Airport, every few minutes a public announcement was broadcast about the interfaith chapel. Passengers were told that it was available 24 hours a day, and were given its precise location. Over the past couple of years I’ve had to fly a lot. I always notice the airport chapels, and I feel for those who are anxious about flying. I’ve never heard such a p-a announcement encouraging use of these chapels before. Perhaps I’m too fixated on how I never get to walk down the “Priority Access Lane.” I know my place; I was born among the working class, and when the plane goes down, I’ll be among my own kind. But I do feel sorry for the dog. He has no choice but to be classed with those who are, in the airline’s opinion, of higher priority than the common citizen. Next time I think I’ll just wait in the chapel, contemplating how god spelled backward is dog.

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Private Property

I’m receiving a government-sponsored massage at Newark’s ironically named “Liberty Airport.” Like most federal freebies, this massage leaves me wanting. Now, I’ve had many pat-downs to protect me from people like myself, and each time I find myself feeling like so much meat for politicians’ pork-bellies in this culture of fear. I am afraid. It isn’t terrorists who worry me, but my own elected (sometimes) guardians. When being a citizen is considered the same thing as an enemy of the state, there is a problem. In the line next to me is an infant-in-arms being given a pat-down by a stranger. Yes, ma’am, my tax dollars help pay for that. Please, don’t bother to thank me. It will be only the first of many.

The last time I flew was from London to New York. In Heathrow US citizens aren’t sent through the humility of full-body scanners. Only a nation afraid of its own does that. I often ponder what this means. Frequently I hear, “these colors don’t run.” I wonder if it’s because they’re too busy sticking their hands down their own citizens’ pants. Home of the brave? Only if bravery means giving in to the intimidations of terrorists. I’ve fallen off a bicycle a time or two. One time it was with pretty messy results. I’ve even actually fallen off a cantering horse. (That may explain a thing or two.) As a child I was always told that you need to get right back on and try again. After 9/11, however, our country showed its naked fear in the overregulation of air security while continuing deregulation of the airlines. Money does not guarantee a secure future.

If our government has a desire to see its citizens naked, what more need they do? They know every penny we earn or exchange, taking a cut each time, and the only way to get on a plane without hassle is to let them view everything. It’s not good for my Constitution. Our Constitution. Moral outrage, however, is apparently a thing of the past. Full-body scanners may be science, but I still believe in the humanities. And when a babe in arms is considered a threat to national security, I have to wonder what we’re truly afraid of. And next time do you think you could use a little more pressure on my neck? I feel like I’m coming down with a wicked headache.

Read the sign

Religion Undisclosed

I’m getting to be a pat-down connoisseur. In Raleigh-Durham it was a more intimate affair with Mr. TSA—I don’t even have his name or number—narrating the intimate details. “I will move my hands up your thigh until I encounter ‘resistance,’” he said. At Newark the pat-down was quicker, more business-like, almost as if Mr. TSA were embarrassed. In Raleigh-Durham, nobody batted a lash when I said full-body scanners were against my religion. At Newark, they laughed. The gate attendants began asking me what my religion is. Private. My religion is as private as my “resistance.” And I was being ridiculed for it. This is the Patriot Act vision of America. Regular readers of this blog know that I have never revealed my religious convictions. They are a very private matter with me, and I had supposed that I’d been born in a nation where that was respected. Instead, I am laughed at.

We extend religious liberty to those who wish to handle rattlesnakes. To men who wear black dresses and have an historic penchant for young boys. To people who believe the world was created in six days. To people who believe golden tablets only seen by one man through rose-colored glasses are the basis for sacred scriptures. To the traveler who believes in the integrity of the human body and cannot divorce it from the respect and dignity of human modesty, this does not apply. Religions arm military forces. Religions rape women. Religions murder children as well as adults. Who’s laughing at them?

I wonder if I might have a legal case here. When has the free practice of my religion—which decrees that full-body scanners are immoral—been opened to public scorn? And don’t tell me it’s the price of security. I walked through “security” with my eyes open; first class passengers do not get scanned like hoi polloi. It’s not a matter of security—it’s about control and money. When will the people take back control of their own country from officials inebriated with power? I feel no safer with a stranger’s latex-gloved hand on my resistance. I feel no safer when people who couldn’t cut college get jobs in the US government and look at their fellow citizens naked. You’ll blank out my face? That makes it even worse. If someone’s going to violate my dignity I want him to look me in the eye and realize that it’s a human being he’s humiliating, not just a hunk of meat. Or in the language of the TSA, mere resistance.

First, show me yours

Naked Before the Almighty

Okay, so I’m a bearded white man traveling alone. Perhaps I look like I have nothing to lose. So at the Raleigh-Durham Airport I’m singled out for a full-body scan. I told the very serious-looking woman that it was against my religion. She said, “You can have a pat-down then.” Oh boy! I was very stoic as the stranger with a southern accent told me just how he was going to touch me, using the back of his hands until he met “resistance.” Echoes of Pulp Fiction. By the time it was all over, I think he kinda liked me.

We, as Americans, have allowed our government to subject us to horror. My younger colleagues tell me that the terror of high school after-gym shower time has finally been eliminated. I grew up taught that no one, not least myself, had a right to look “down there.” Naked in a windowless room with a bunch of boys whose hormones are tearing them apart was never comfortable for me. One gym teacher sadistically told us if we could hold our hand under the hot water tap wide open for a full minute we’d get an A in phys ed without having to do a thing more. Pain makes the man.

Now I go to the airport where some voyeur I don’t know and will never meet makes an assessment of my endowment, analyzes my assets. Thank you, no. Who gives him the right? Of course, the Bush Administration did. We, as citizens, stand bare before our rich and powerful leaders. I don’t think that’s what the right to bare arms is all about. From a shop below wafts Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” The irony seems lost on all but me. But then, a stranger’s hands are down my pants. Bush’s legacy in the Patriot Act is that all are guilty until proven innocent. After being felt up, I feel like I need a shower. I need to check my “resistance.”

Then again, maybe my government will do it for me.