The Airport Pat Down

Some time ago, in some comment or other, someone asked about how to handle the “new” airport security full-body scan. At the time I had not done any traveling, so I didn’t know exactly what it was like. But I just got back from a trip, and I saw first-hand (or shall I say hands-on) how this new system works.

It was very early in the a.m., so I was not on top of my game. In fact, I  had heard that some airports have been scaling back their use of the full-body scans, given the public blow-back they had received, so I did not have it in my mind as we began our winding dance through the security line.

I had carefully packed, taking pains to remove all offensive items from my purse that might cause someone to blow the whistle.  Rather than do the zip-lock baggie, I just shoved everything liquid into my suitcase. And I’m all for keeping the lines moving and not slowing everyone down by having fifty quarters in my pocket. Anyway, I dutifully removed my shoes and coat and put everything neatly into the two bins and began moving through the line. As I got right up to the old-fashioned metal detector doorway, a worker from the next line signaled for me to come over. Initially I thought he just wanted to open up a new line, but as I started walking through, I realized I was right smack in the middle of the full-body x-ray machine. I told him I did not want to go through that one. So he called a female security person who met me and walked me through a different route, around the old-fashioned machine. Since I had “opted out” of the walk-through, I was now treated to the pat-down.

“Stand here. Where’s your stuff?” she asked.

“Right there,” I pointed. My two bins were sitting innocently a few feet away on the conveyor belt that had carried them successfully through the x-ray machine.

“If you don’t tell me where they are, I won’t be able to move them over here for you,” she snarled.

So I walked over to them to point them out more accurately.

“Don’t touch them!”

This is where I should have just kept quiet. But I didn’t. Instead, thinking that I was a free citizen and forgetting that I was in the liberty-free zone, I said, “Why not? It’s my stuff. Why am I being treated like this?”

At that point she called over her supervisor who meekly listened while we each laid out our views on the subject. Then he moved back to his post (without a word) and we proceeded with the pat down.

“Would you like to go to a private room?” my female security person asked.

“Absolutely not. Do your deed right here in the public view.”

The pat down itself was not such a big deal. But I will tell you what was a big deal. At airports we are now all treated as though we are guilty, guilty, guilty until we can prove our innocence by shedding our outer garments, giving up our property rights while our belongings are searched, and being patted down (with the backs of the blue-gloved hands). Something is terribly wrong with this system. Being born in America, I have always felt and been treated like a free citizen. It is something assumed, like my own last name.  I understand that if I get pulled over by a cop because I ran a red light, that he is doing his job and I did a baddie. But when I purchase a ticket on an airline, with that ticket now comes the understanding that I am going to be treated with unfounded suspicion. And I may have to prove my innocence twice.

I don’t know what we free citizens can do. It seems to me that we can either quit flying (not a bad idea) or….I haven’t thought of the other option. I doubt that airports would allow picketing. We could write our congressmen, but they seem busy with other things right now.

On the bright side, on our return flight the scanning machines were arranged so that you could choose which line to get in yourself. Clearly, many Americans don’t mind going through the full-body scanners. Either that or they don’t want to be late to the gate by asking for a pat-down instead. But I got in the line for the old-fashioned machine, and after removing my shoes, coat, sweater, and scarf and walking through the little metal detector, I was declared innocent and fit for travel. I prefer being given a choice rather than being randomly selected for the pat down. Wouldn’t you?

I truly wonder how many real terrorists have been caught with this new system. Surely we should pray that God will deliver us from such tyrannical treatment at our nation’s airports. The security guards are just people, but they are being paid to treat their fellow citizens in a way that has to have a hardening effect on them as well as on us. If we get used to being treated this way, willing to subject ourselves to this in order to enjoy the privilege of flying, then I wonder what’s next. We don’t want to become the kind of people who are used to being denied their liberty. That’s a dangerous condition for us all.

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29 thoughts on “The Airport Pat Down

  1. My solution: When I flew in January, I drove four hours from Baltimore to Newport News, flew out the the scanner-free airport there, and into the scanner-free airport in Monroe. As long as I didn’t mess up with the metal detector, there was no chance of having to be patted down. Plus I got to spend time with my friends in Virginia. It certainly cost a bit more to fly in and out of these smaller airports, but it was worth it not to have to be afraid of getting virtually stripped or literally groped.

  2. Valerie,
    Great idea! So how do you find out ahead of time which airports have scanners? And, of course, some destinations don’t lend themselves to nearby airports (as in international travel). If you opt for a smaller airport, you never know what kind of crazy travel schedule you might end up with.

  3. There’s a website (probably more than one) that lists which airports have scanners, but I found out by word of mouth. As you note, there are definitely down-sides, and it won’t work for everybody. It also likely won’t be a permanent solution, as the scanners may eventually come to the smaller airports.

  4. I read an article recently that explained how Israeli security works at their airports. From memory (a risky endeavour), you could go from your parked car on to the plane in about 30 minutes. No body scanners. Considering the security nightmares that must exist in Israel, I wonder why we are subjected to the scanners? (Or perhaps the article was not accurate?)

  5. Nope, the article was accurate. Part of the difference is that Israeli security aggressively profiles based on behavior and (I think) to a certain extent where you’ve been traveling previously. The body scanners are highly flawed as a way to prevent terrorist attacks. I believe it was the head of Israeli airport security who said that he could think of at least a dozen different ways to get around the scanners. Oh, and lest anything think the TSA is being reasonable, they have made pilots go through the scanners. Pilots. You know, the guys flying a huge tank of fuel containing hundreds of people. It’s nonsense.

    I’ve also discovered that the airport makes a huge difference. San Francisco can be a bit intimidating, but we head out of Birmingham (AL) the TSA guys will generally crack a smile (or even a joke) and act like pretty decent folks just doing their jobs. BHM also doesn’t have scanners. We’d like to fly less and avoid the whole mess, but with family on the other side of the country we’re sort of stuck flying for now. Lord willing we’re going to move back that direction.

  6. They have one in Fresno–I was surprised as Fresno isn’t huge…but it is an int’l airport. There was no way I was going through it pregnant! Thankfully when you present yourself with 2 toddlers and a stroller, they don’t seem to pick on you. They let me just walk through the regular detector holding Richard (23 months). I was glad we didn’t have to hassle with anything! I did seem to get picked for every single “random” pat-down on one of our family’s last trips to and from France though–and these were random pat-downs AFTER security! If taking an ocean liner to and from Europe was affordable, that’s how we’d do it! :)

  7. Another reason we are subjected to scanners: the high-profile theatrics. Terrorists don’t blow up softball games at Little League, they pick airplanes because they are dramatic. Little League coaches don’t have to walk through scanners, but pilots do because it’s dramatic. I suspect part of it is a game of who can wear the most flamboyant costume and attract the most applause from their respective audiences.

  8. My husband and I have been really bummed out (to put it mildly) about all the new regulations at the airports. We were both looking forward to taking our children off on adventures to places that we ourselves have never seen. As it is now, we don’t even want to go off on those trips by ourselves, let alone subject our kids to all that tomfoolery. So sad. We will have to content ourselves with driving for now, which is still a blast. :-)

  9. We decided not to fly anywhere for our 10th anniversary… going somewhere within driving distance. I’d rather not be hardened.

  10. I had a similar experience in New York, in which I was required to take the diaper off my 2yr old, as she had dropped some change into her pyjamas and it was stuck……I was patted down and treated like a criminal while my daughter was manhandled right in front of me.
    It was all quite disrespectful of our family and really ridiculous.

    Oddly enough, the next day, at Heathrow security, my camera bag was found to contain a very sharp Henckel fruit knife. (The knife had also been in the case when we were in line in Kennedy the day before, and of which I was unaware.)
    At Heathrow, the agent who found the knife and removed it could not have been more considerate as he apologized for taking my fine knife and for delaying our progress while he searched for it after seeing it on x-ray. I was so thankful the knife had not been discovered in my own country, as I am sure we would have been detained, and treated with even greater disrespect.

    Ironic, no?

  11. Not that I would enjoy this experience in the least (I went through a milder version in Paris and in New Zealand a few years ago) and not that I know how effective either method really is, but IF we’re going to have full-body scans or pat-downs why on earth would pilots be exempt? And why would they only pull “likely” suspects out of the crowd, offending Middle Eastern Christians and non-radical Muslims? The TSA should either be hyper-sensitive about all of us or none of us. They should either have scanners at all airports or none, since terrorists are at least as likely to look for scanner-free airports as any of you. I might feel like eating my words the next time I fly, but this is meant to protect our country. That said, I do hope the TSA comes up with less offensive and more effective methods of screening people.

  12. As someone new to America, I thought it was just standard practice for people in airports (and other places like shops) to be SUPER rude. The whole attitude of ‘we’re doing you a darn big favor letting you into our airport/shop’ as opposed to treating a customer who’s just forked out a lot of money with some respect. But maybe I experience the rudeness a little more often because I live in New York City. :-)

    It’s nice to know that it wasn’t always like this! In my mind it’s just one great big scare tactic, all for show. It’s not going to deter any real terrorists, I’m sure!

  13. Hannah, the foolishness of searching pilots is that they have no need to bring weapons aboard a plane when they could turn the plane itself into a much bigger and more effective weapon. That’s straining for gnats and swallowing camels.

    The Israeli approach does use profiling, but it’s not a one-dimensional be-wary-of-brown-skinned-people profiling. It’s a much more effective approach that relies on highly trained security personnel to observe intelligently the people moving through the airport. Google for some articles on it.

    The Israelis haven’t had any successful air travel terrorist attacks. We keep having attempts that TSA never averts. TSA just keeps adding regulations to try to keep the last thing from happening again. TSA has never actually stopped a terrorist. Their methods do little to protect our freedoms and much to infringe on them.

  14. What I and my airline attendant sister want to know is why all those other people associated with the airplanes – (Baggage handlers, cleaning crew, and food service), all get a free pass.

  15. Preach it, Valerie! (I tell you what…Sometimes it is good to be poor. I have no means to fly, and therefore do not have to deal with deciding whether I would or not.)

  16. Hannah, the issue is greater than just distaste, or simple offense, or an outdated concept of private parts being private. Our Constitution protects us from such treatment without probable cause. “Wanting to take a plane trip” is not probable cause, and so we have a situation where the government itself is acting illegally. It’s illegal! They’re breaking the law of the land. And we’re letting them.

    And lest anyone think that illegal, unconstitutional actions should be allowed “as long as it works” – would you submit to strip searches – because that’s logically next. But all this patting and peaking isn’t working anyway. http://bit.ly/fHbHvN

  17. The TSA stuff has created the first situation where I’ve ever felt nervous about flying.

  18. Hannah, you might read “The Things He Carried” http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/11/the-things-he-carried/7057/1/ It does a pretty good job of demonstrating that TSA does more “security theater” than real security.

    I understand the need for point security at certain high risk areas, but we can’t kid ourselves that we’re actually doing the real security work there when all a terrorist has to do is attack a bridge, office building, mall, hospital, etc. We can’t see the agents all working behind the scenes catching the real threats, but we can by golly be intimidated by seeing a few agents concerned about 3oz of breast milk.

  19. What about the simple question of modesty?
    Do we really think that God makes “security” exemptions for his word?
    It just seems that if we have a problem With any kind of clothing choises that are out there, or porn, adultery, and the list could go on…we should have a serious problem with our or our spouse’s or our children’s naked bodies being displayed for whomever is sitting behind the airport computer.

  20. For anyone in Northern California, even though San Francisco airport is big they don’t have TSA. They are the largest airport in the country that has contracted out with a private security company. I don’t know if they have the new scanners as of yet (I haven’t flown in 9 months or so), but the security there has never bothered us (they even let my son take his toy gun on the plane).

    Last summer, even before the full-body scan/pat-down nonsense, my 4-year-old set off the metal detectors at the very small White Plains, NY airport, just outside the city. He set them off because he was wearing overalls (he wants to be a farmer), and the TSA there told us he needed a full pat-down. Then they told me that I would also need a full pat-down because I held his hand while he waited in the holding area. Only because my husband made quite the scene and called nearly every TSA official over to hear our complaints were we finally let go without one.

  21. I am sorry to contribute to the negativity! I was trying to give a bit of balance and not offend. Whatever airport personnel do, I agree with Franci and Nancy that they should do it politely. It’s also too bad they’re stirring up fear for so many when their aim should be sound profiling that would allay fear.

  22. Hannah, I’m glad you made the comment. It’s good to talk about, and I hope you don’t feel picked on! You make excellent points. : )

  23. One interesting note about profiling (and the lack of it in the States)–Norman Mineta was the transportation secretary in office during 9/11. Mr. Mineta is the son of Japanese immigrants and was a child in California during World War II. He and his parents were shipped off by the U.S. government to a Japanese internment camp during the war because of their race. He stated that because of his background, after 9/11 he absolutely refused to look for Arabs as likely terrorists, and would treat everyone “equally” in airport security. He said that it didn’t matter that an elderly grandmother in the wheelchair got the same treatment as a young Arab man, because he would not do what he believed had been done to his own family.

  24. Hannah, you weren’t being negative…you were trying to put a positive spin on things. Alas, reality has a way of putting a stick in the spokes of every spin I’ve seen on this issue!

  25. I like your spunk Mrs. Wilson. :) I would have wilted and died if someone had talked to me like that!
    I honestly can’t decided which is worse, a full-body x-ray or someone touching me all over…both are nasty!!!

  26. I love your blog and I like to read it when I can and I hope what I write doesn’t offend, that is not what I want to do. Also I really haven’t an opinion on the airport pat downs and scanners and new procedures created for public safety vs peoples rights, except the Benjamin Franklin Quote “He who gives up his freedom for safety deserves neither”

    What I find interesting and am posting about is what you wrote about being American and always being treated as a free citzen and the opposite of that as being treated guilty and having to prove your innocence. I have to say that as a person of ambiguous race I have always been treated guilty and that I must prove my innocence constantly to the world, culture, and authority figures around me. Based on simply my name and the color of my skin I was denied a passport for an entire year as well as having to send pictures and documents proving myself to the country I was born into that I was in fact even a citizen. To add to that fact, I am 7th generation American. Only one example I have, I have many others and I know of countles others who have far worse stories. Hispanics in Arizona who must carry around proof of citizenship for fear that they will be arrested and deported even if they are U.S. Citizens, just without documentation at that very moment. I don’t think the America you know and the America that is reality for a great amount of Americans is the same.

  27. As an American living in a foreign country I would have to chime in to say that in general Americans take thier safety for granted. There are not armed guards outside your grocery stores. You do not have to turn in your purse to a man with an AK-47 at the bank. You do not have to go through a strip-search just to leave the country, no matter what your race, age or family status is. For most people in coutnries around the world a society as safe as the US is a dream world, and if that includes having to have a pat-down to insure that, well… it could be worse! The Bible tells us that things in the world will get worse and worse, not better and better. We can hope and pray to be a light in the midst of such darkness, but there are times when situations such as these are unavoidable (we are missionaries, and MUST travel by plane or land- where there are worse dangers than a scan machine). We CAN opt out when possible, and when impossible, accept ie with grace, and treat our “oppressors” as we would want to be treated. Just a thought from a diffrent angle! God bless.

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