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Dignity at the Airport

2010 November 25
by Julie Clawson

as posted at the Christian Century blog

When I flew home this past weekend, I got to see the new TSA screening measures in action. The tiny airport I flew out of didn’t have the new backscatter machines, but TSA agents were selecting passengers to receive the full-body pat-downs. I watched as a very elderly man was pulled to the side and patted down head to toe, the agent’s hands rubbing all over his chest and touching his rear end and groin. The man’s wife stood by looking helpless.

I was appalled by the intrusive nature of the pat-down but even more horrified by how unaccommodating the agents were to the man’s age and frailty. He had to hold his arms out to the side for a significant amount of time. My elementary school teachers used this as punishment, until the district made them stop because it was cruel and unusual. Yet this elderly gentleman was forced to do so to the point of physical strain–I saw him shaking–in the name of national security.

I’ve seen the YouTube videos of young children being stripped searched, of sexual assault victims sobbing because they’ve been touched in ways that resurface terrifying memories. I’ve read conflicting reports as to whether the backscatter machine’s radiation is harmful. I have friends who, when the TSA asks for their cloak, plan to shame the shamers by giving them their tunic too. I’m having a hard time discerning if I am outraged or simply heartbroken.

As more and more people protest this invasion of their bodies, the TSA agents who bear the brunt of the anger have complained to their union, asking for more protection from upset passengers. They don’t like being shoved or called molesters, and they want to be able to do their job professionally without interference. Part of me wants to respond with incredulity–how it is okay for a stranger to touch my breasts but not okay for me to feel violated by that? But I feel for the agents and the difficult position they are in.

What is at stake is human dignity of passenger and agent alike. There’s no dignity in being inspected like an animal–nor in performing the inspection. Ironically, our fear of terrorism has led us to toss aside this dignity.

These security measures are meant to build a safer community for us to live in, but there can be no community when there is no respect for the dignity of other people. When the government mandates acts that in any other situation would get someone fired for harassment or arrested for assault, we have to ask if we have sacrificed the freedoms and community that we’re trying to protect.


5 Responses leave one →
  1. November 25, 2010

    I have a great deal of empathy for the TSA agents as well. They aren’t the ones who made up these ridiculous rules but they have to suffer the (albeit well-deserved) ire of everyone who opposes the new policies.

    When people say that they plan to give their tunic as well as their cloak, does this mean that they plan to strip? I think that’s a appropriate form of protest in this instance. I wonder what the official response will be if enough people do it?

    Another random thought – I wonder how people who are sensitive to being touched in certain ways due to past sexual abuse or assault will handle this? It isn’t something that I’ll have to process but I do know people who would have panic attacks at the thought of either “option.” I’ve heard numbers of women who _report_ being sexually assaulted that have ranged from 1 in 6 to 1 in 3. I don’t know what the correct percentage is, but this is a fairly large group.

    I wonder how the TSA will react the first (or twentieth, or hundredth) time that someone has a very bad reaction to security?

  2. November 25, 2010

    There’s honestly nothing surprising about this, and it’s really just the beginning (well, the PATRIOT Act was the beginning, this is phase 2 I guess). Eventually you will have a complete police state down there since I don’t see your citizens ever doing anything about it. As long as you continue to elect the same two political parties nothing will change since they both belong to the same corporations.

  3. November 26, 2010

    I have been in a wheelchair all my life, so getting the pat down prior to boarding a plane is nothing new for me. My experience has not been bad. Agents, almost without exception have been very cordial and willing to work with my limitations (i.e. I cannot hold my arms up without assistance). The experience is part of the cost of flying. It is possible to travel without having your privacy invaded, but then you would need to stay in your car. Perhaps instead of everyone complaining about this situation, we could come up with a better system for insuring that everyone on the plane is not a threat. I’m sure if you have an idea that works, the TSA will listen. In the meantime, are you willing to risk that all your fellow passangers have your safety in mind? It is easier to complain than to offer a solution!

  4. Mary Johnson permalink
    November 27, 2010

    I found your blog entry by putting “Walter Brueggemann” and “TSA” in Google. I had been reading the second edition of his book, “The Prophetic Imagination” in which he quotes William Cavanaugh: “To refer to torture as the ‘imagination of the state’ as I have done is obviously not to deny the reality of torture, but to call attention to the fact that torture is part of a drama of inscribing bodies to perform certain roles in the imaginative project which is the nation-state.” While the trauma of backscatter radiation imaging vs. aggressive “hands-forward” patdowns that confronts travelers on their way to Grandma’s for Thanksgiving or Christmas is radically different in degree from the trauma of torture, it is perhaps not different in kind. Both stem from a State imagining a role for its citizens that can only be sustained by fear and violence. So the question for Christians who travel by air becomes: how do we faithfully bear witness to a radically different vision? How do we respect the dignity of every human being in this setting? When, and how, do we say, “Enough is enough!”

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