I flew to North Carolina last weekend to visit my sister. It was a great visit. She showed me around Chapel Hill, including a really great comics store and a used book store with (of course) two live-in cats. We cooked and baked and ate to our little hearts’ content. We stayed up late talking our our jammies. It was a near-perfect vacation…bookended by travel I was extremely anxious about, thanks to the TSA’s new menu of cancer or molestation. I ended up getting lucky, and managed to go through metal detectors going through security in both directions. (“They don’t tell you which line to go through unless you’re brown” my sister’s roommate told me, when I asked about security at their airport. Ugh.) But I spent a lot of last week thinking about the new regulations.
I’m pretty well-positioned to not have whole body imaging be a big deal, relatively speaking. I’m cis (and not even really visibly queer, when it’s straight people doing the looking), and white, and currently able-bodied, and not a rape or abuse survivor, and I don’t have religious rules about modesty to deal with. I don’t even have terribly much modesty; the idea of strangers seeing me naked isn’t all that troublesome to me. But that lack of concern most decidedly does not extend to being touched without my consent. The idea of submitting to an “enhanced’ pat-down makes my skin crawl. And there is a history of both skin cancer and breast cancer in my family. The TSA (of course) claims the imagers are perfectly safe, but independent scientists have raised questions about whether that has been tested thoroughly enough, and whether a dose that would be safe if it were absorbed evenly throughout the body might be dangerously high when absorbed mostly by the skin. My concerns about both the cancer risks and being felt up against my will are serious enough that, if I hadn’t been promising my sister for a year that I would come visit (and if I didn’t have to be a bridesmaid in my childhood best friend’s wedding in March) I probably wouldn’t be flying for a while.
Since I was determined to fly, I did some research. I learned that it’s the backscatter X-ray that’s the unknown cancer risk, and that it seems pretty well agreed that the millimeter wave machines are safe. I also learned that the TSA seems to be using the terms pretty interchangeably, so it’s not always clear which machines are in use — and, while Googling can tell me which airports have whole body imaging (it’s even in the TSA’s FAQ), it won’t tell me which of them are using it as primary screening, let alone which terminals the machines are in or which type of machine they are. (I spent a significant amount of time trying to turn up that last bit of information). I also learned from friends who’ve travelled that even most airports that have the scanners have security lanes with metal detectors as well, and that often being carful to get on the right line sidesteps the problem. After much thought I decided that, if I didn’t have the option of a metal detector, I would ask which type of imaging was in use. If it was millimeter wave I’d go through it.
After contemplating just stripping at security to show my clothes weren’t hiding anything (it’s been tried, though I can’t find those links again right now, and while it should serve the same pupose, it seems policy is policy and people have been ordered to put their clothes back on and go through the machines), I reluctantly decided that if it was backscatter, I would opt out. I also decided that I should call my grandmother, a breast cancer survivor who will be traveling by air soon, to make sure she knows about the new security measures and can make an informed choice (even if the idea of advising my grandmother to consider getting patted down horrifies me more than going through it myself.)
I was actually so anxious on my way to the airport last Thursday that I got off the bus at the wrong terminal. I then went inside and tried to check in at the wrong airline. I didn’t realize I was in the wrong place until after I started to panic when I swiped my credit card and the self-check-in machine told me it didn’t have my reservation.
As I said above, I ended up going through a metal detector, rendering all of that anxiety moot. But what I couldn’t stop thinking as I researched security and tried to figure out how to avoid it (or parts of it) is that at that point, the process has already failed. If passengers with nothing pertinent to hide and no goal other than to arrive at their destination are dreading security and trying to figure out how to get around it, or at least trying to figure out in advance exactly which parts they’ll be subjected to…that’s absurd, it’s a clear sign that screening procedures have gone too far. And it sets up an unfortunate adversarial dynamic between the TSA and the flying public that seems more likely to keep the TSA busy dealing with protesters and other non-terrorists trying to get around the regulations than to keep anyone safer.
The TSA has also been claiming that their goal, with this change and in general, is to get passengers through security quickly, safely, and conveniently. (Again, I can’t find link to this, because I read so much and saw it referenced so many places that I can’t remember specifically where I came across it.) As I packed my carry-on bag to avoid the $25 checked bag fee, it occurred to me that if they were serious about that goal, pressuring airlines to stop charging for carry-on luggage would be a great place to start. I can’t imagine how many more bags they have to examine because people are reluctant to pay to check bags, and are packing to avoid it. (I know I do, whenever possible. Read: on any trip for which I need fewer than four pairs of shoes.) And that means not only more bags, but also people testing the line of which items they can get away with packing in carry-ons, when they would normally check them. That has to slow security down considerably, between the extra bags and the extra scrutiny for questionable items. I can’t believe that the TSA doesn’t have the clout to make airlines seriously reconsider charging to check bags, now that the gas prices they used as an excuse have come down from highway robbery to merely outrageous. I find it difficult to believe in their commitment to “quickly and conveniently” until they do so. And disbelieving that claim contributes to my general distrust, and disbelief of any claim they might make.