Reflections on an Airport Groping

by Quinn O'Neill

Screening_in_DTW_Airport Eager hands caressed the small of her back, made their way over the crest of her buttocks, and temporarily cupped them like a pair of cantaloupes. Sadly, this isn’t an excerpt from a cheesy Harlequin romance, it’s airport security in 2011. The buttocks were mine and I didn’t enjoy the experience at all.

I’d read about this sort of thing happening to other people, but somehow it didn’t seem real until it happened to me. Ironically, it was the first time I’d ever felt the urge to become violent in an airport and it was inspired by airport security measures. Mostly my anger was directed at myself. I didn’t approve of what had taken place and yet I stood there and let it happen like a Victorian bride thinking of England on her wedding night.

My experience was undoubtedly mild compared to some of the more invasive gropings that have taken place at the hands of TSA employees. I was felt up at a Canadian airport prior to a domestic flight and so my “pat-down” was presumably of the standard variety, although more invasive than I’d ever experienced. Now, as I contemplate a move to the US from my current home in Montreal, my biggest fears relating to travel aren’t of terrorism or plane crashes, but of inevitable violations of my privacy at airport security gates.

I’ve often had trouble with airport security in the past while traveling between the US and Canada. It’s not that I pose any threat, but I find it hard to keep my sarcastic comments to myself at the best of times and I tend to be stressed when I travel. This, combined with the kafkaesque procedures of airport security, makes for a volatile situation.

I’ve had a few visits to private rooms for lengthy interrogations about my travels and luggage contents. I’ve learned from experience that lies are preferrable when the truth isn’t as plausible and mundane as a story a terrorist might make up to avoid suspicion. On one occasion, returning from Toronto to where I was living in the US at the time, my explanation for visiting Toronto was deemed suspicious. I’d gone for a long weekend just for a change of pace and scenery. Did I have friends there? No. Family? No. Planning to move there? No. The questions continued until finally after about a half hour, the exasperated questioner repeated “you don’t have a brother or someone living there that you were visiting?!” and I said “Yes, that’s it, I was visiting my brother”. He asked why I didn’t just say that at the start and I explained that I was tired and not thinking straight. He let me go. I don’t have a brother.

Security measures have evolved over the past decade. Years ago, shoes became a primary concern and we became accustomed to lines of sock-footed people clutching plastic bins containing smelly footwear. Liquids later became the in thing to fuss about and now people’s private parts are of primary concern. On my most recent pass through security, it was deemed appropriate to feel my ass but not necessary for me to remove my knee-high rubber boots. I wondered as I tried not to think about the stranger palpating my hind region if there existed a dangerous item small enough to fit in my bloomers that wouldn’t more safely and comfortably be transported in my boot.

What’s most aggravating about airport security is the expectation that everyone will act as if there’s nothing manifestly inane about the process. If a security worker pulls a tube of liquid from your separate “liquids bag” and inquires as to what it is, it’s considered highly inappropriate to respond with an incredulous, “Surely you’re not assuming that people would just tell you if they were carrying an explosive?” But yes, apparently they are, and a response like this will raise alarm. To whom are thinking people dangerous, I wonder… And if we expect honesty from would-be evil-doers, why beat around the bush and not just ask directly, “Are you a terrorist?” To be as sure as we are naive, we could follow up by asking “Are you lying?”.

It occurred to me while I was being felt up that, if I were serious about transporting something small enough to fit in my knickers and wished to avoid its detection, a body cavity would be a better choice. And this brings me to my main point: we should give some serious thought as to where we should draw the line on airport security because strip searches and body cavity searches may not be far off. My feeling is that we ought to have drawn the line a ways back and that these things tend to surpass unacceptable levels of invasiveness and senselessness because they escalate gradually. If I didn’t protest years ago when I was first asked to remove my shoes and I said nothing recently when I was fondled while wearing boots, why would I take issue with being asked to remove my pants? With a hand inside my bra? Or with any gradual progression from a ridiculous or invasive practice that I’ve tolerated previously? Will it take a gloved finger spelunking in one of my body cavities before I’ll put my foot down? Or will I have become so accustomed to being violated by that point that it’ll no longer seem especially inappropriate?

Establishing limits is tricky for practical reasons too. Since the motivation to get to where we need to go is strong, airport security quite literally has us by the balls. Refusal to be felt up may mean missing your flight and important events or responsabilities that require you to show up at your destination on time. In the US, it can also mean a hefty fine. The cost in terms of time and money may not be affordable for most travellers.

I haven’t discussed the option of avoiding molestation by passing through the similarly violating scanners, but I consider this to be an even less desirable tine of Morton’s fork. In addition to the invasive nature of the scans, which will even reveal any feminine hygiene products being worn, some very highly respected scientists have expressed concern about the safety of the machines.

Despite the practical difficulties of reining in airport security measures, the issue merits attention and not just because it concerns our safety and civil liberties. In my opinion, it also reflects other problems, like the loss of all perspective on risk. Even in 2001, motor vehicle accidents killed 15 times more Americans than terrorism. While the risk of being killed by a terrorist in the US is infinitesimally small, more than 2500 Americans die in car accidents each month. Yet people will drive without so much as contemplating the risk and think it reasonable for an elderly woman’s genitals to be felt for explosives at the airport. Perhaps more lives would be saved if some of the money spent on airport security were invested in public transportation.

It’s worth remembering that these extra security measures came about mainly in response to the attacks of 9/11. These were unspeakably horrific and the need to prevent similar acts of terrorism is serious and real. However, the security measures that are in place mainly create an illusion of security and condition the masses to the stripping of their rights and freedoms.

Airplanes aren’t needed to commit an act of terrorism. Even if airport security at the gate were perfectly effective, it wouldn’t prevent anyone from detonating a bomb in some other populated area – just outside the security gate or at another setting entirely. We’ve seen enough shooting sprees in schools and workplaces and other random acts of violence to know that it’s quite easy to harm people if one is so inclined. What makes it fairly safe to leave your home isn’t metal detectors at every corner or police officers roaming the streets patting down pedestrians at random – it’s the fact that the vast majority of people don’t wish you any harm.

When a whole group of people wish to harm us, it’s time to look at their motives, not to force people to jump through hoops like circus monkeys, molest them and confiscate their nail clippers to create an illusion of security. Real, lasting security is more likely to be achieved by efforts that include addressing the root causes of violence and fostering positive relationships with those with whom we coexist and interact.

Conspicuously absent from most discussions of airport security is any mention of the reasons why people might want to harm us. If we’re serious about our security we ought to address the motives of those who threaten it. When asked, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, stated that the purpose of the attacks was to focus the American people on “the atrocities America is committing by supporting Israel against the Palestinian people and America’s self-serving foreign policy that corrupts Arab governments and leads to further exploitation of the Arab/Muslim peoples.”

Given that this was the stated reason for the attacks one might expect it to figure prominently in discussions about security, yet it almost never comes up. The mastermind of the 9/11 attacks gave a straightforward, intelligible explanation of his motives and those in power responded by not only not addressing the motives, but by suppressing the information and infringing on citizens’ privacy in the guise of keeping them safe.

Evidently, there are powerful people who do wish to restrict our rights and freedoms and they’re not the same people who hate us for our foreign policies. If the reasons for terrorism do indeed lie in exploitative and self-serving foreign policies, the real war on terror is to be fought at home, as is the real fight to protect our cherished freedoms.

I think it’s time to give some serious thought as to where we should draw the line on invasions of our privacy and exactly what form “drawing the line” will take when we draw it. I think it’s also time to take a look at the root causes of terrorism. We won’t find real security in our underpants.

photo: Wikimedia Commons