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USA Pat-Downs: Enhanced But Hardly Thorough


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
It does not take much to come face to face — or hand to buttock — with the controversial inner cordon of our nation’s antiterrorist strategy. You don’t have to break into Langley or crack open an encrypted file. All you have to do is snake your way through the airport security line, then step up to the person monitoring the metal detector or the full-body scanner and say, “Manual, please.”

A stoic Transportation Security Administration employee (male or female, in accordance with your gender) will snap on a pair of latex gloves and brace himself or herself for yet another encounter with the public’s privates.

Last Monday at Kennedy International Airport, as I went — ticket in hand — to experience it for myself, a uniformed officer informed me that she would be patting me down from head to toe, using a new enhanced technique. On “sensitive areas” — the breasts, buttocks and groin — she would use the back of her hand.

Did I have any metal objects in my pockets? No. Would I prefer a private screening area? No.

Then the officer’s hands did as she warned me they would. They poked around the back of my collar, they extended along my shoulders, they ran up and down my arms, they smoothed down my back, they slid inside the back waistband of my pants and they glided down my butt. The officer bent down and I felt her hands skate up the back of my left thigh — all the way up — and then do the same on my right. Then she rose, came around in front of me, and began again.

As she acquainted herself with the precise topography of my bra, it seemed a fitting moment to get to know each other a bit. “I bet people are freaking out about this,” I said.

It wasn’t much of a bet. Those freak-outs — by passengers who were subjected to the new screening techniques, by passengers who have never been and want to keep it that way, by elected officials — had already gone viral. A “National Opt-Out Day” had already been scheduled for the day before Thanksgiving to protest the full-body scanners. Still, opting out of them may shield you from prying electronic eyes, but it just lands you where I was, right in the palm of the security agency’s roving hands.

So, were people freaking out? My screener flashed me a “you don’t know the half of it” look. Then she worked her way over my belly and inside the waistband of my jeans. (A note to airline travelers: You might want to rethink those fashionably low-waist pants. I wished I had.) Then it was up and down my thighs again, and over a “sensitive area” indeed.

How many films and novels have imagined thrilling physical encounters between traveling strangers, set against the no-nonsense atmosphere of the modern airport? After those encounters the participants head to the bar for a brandy. After mine, the officer tested her latex gloves for traces of dangerous substances, and I, cleared of suspicion, headed to the Cibo Express Gourmet Market for a yogurt.

Reaching into my pocket to pay, I found metal objects (keys and coins) that the pat-down had missed. Oh well. I exited the secure area, put a battery in my pocket to up the ante, and headed back to the tail end of the security line to see if a second inspector might be any more perceptive.

Up ahead of me a family of elderly Hasidic Jews was preparing for a pat-down. The ancient-looking patriarch, in a wheelchair, was first. When a female security officer instructed him to remove his belt, he looked up, confused. So she leaned down and, unbuckling it for him, removed it. With his eyebrows raised in disbelief and his pants hanging half open, he was wheeled to the left for further inspection.

His wife, meanwhile, standing unstably on her own two feet, was guided to the right, where in full view of everyone she was treated to the same humiliation techniques.

Critics have derided some of the showier aspects of airport security as “security theater,” something that looks impressive but accomplishes little. If so, the invasion of an old woman’s personal space has got to count as security theater of the absurd. I watched in squirming discomfort. Her son averted his eyes. And the rest of the world buzzed by, oblivious, grumbling about luggage fees and seating assignments as they bustled off to Rochester, Miami or Oakland.

All told, I submitted to the security agency’s 10-fingered salutation eight times in one day — enough to win the respect of George Clooney’s character in “Up in the Air.”

Some officers began their work with a lengthy preamble; others were terse. Some seemed grateful for a little friendly conversation; others appeared on guard. And some took their time, covering every square inch of my person, while others finished quickly.

All of the officers reassured me they would use the back of their hand on those sensitive areas. Who cares, really? A hand is a hand, even when it’s attached to the long arm of the law.

It’s amazing how quickly the pat-down evolves from shocking indignity to banal hassle, just like padding around barefoot while your pants fall down and your toothpaste tube gets the third degree, something airline travelers have been experiencing for years now. The inconvenience is worth it, of course, if it works — if it uncovers potential dangers before they board a plane.

That’s what a spokesman for the T.S.A. informed me, afterward, the officers’ job was: to assess whether I posed a threat to aviation. He would not comment on whether that should have included checking out the objects hidden in my pocket. All I know is I went through the line eight times, and not a single inspector noticed them.



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