TSA photo

The technologies that bring us together are making me more resentful of the ones that tear us apart.

Red light cameras. Metal detectors. Running counter to the technologies of unity are the technologies of distrust. Are they necessary? Sure. And usually removed enough to be bearable. It’s when you’re forced to interact with the people handling these technologies that things get profoundly uncomfortable.

Take those new airport body scanners.

I know what you’re thinking, but this is not about the scanners’ invasiveness or safety. Those protests played out when the scanners arrived at hundreds of airports last year. That’s not to say the matter is settled; far from it. My husband sends me new articles disputing the scanners’ safety whenever he finds them, and that appears to be often. Did you know they’re banned in Europe?

Monica Guzman

Friends got on my case when the scanners first came out. They fumed, I didn’t. My only defense was the majority defense. But when I got pregnant in the fall, I caved. I promised Jason I’d opt out of the scans whenever I travel, despite the hassle. That’s how I ended up with frequent, extended stays in technology-supported ugh.

Here’s how it happens. First, I’m unlucky enough to be in the wrong line at the wrong time and am asked by a security officer to step up to the scanner instead of the metal detector. Hiding a curse, a sigh, or something worse — these are not my best moments — I let him know as warmly as I can that I need to opt out.

What happens next breaks up the predictable alienation of airport security with a dash of unpredictable alienation. The security officer tells me to wait here. No, there. The call goes out. “Female assist!” I stand barefoot as travelers who don’t have promises to keep give me sideways glances as they step in, lift their arms, collect their stuff and rush back to humanity.

Sometimes seconds pass. Usually, more than a minute. Then she appears — the poor soul who has to do this awkward thing in this awkward way because I won’t do what’s normal.

I look at her, she looks at me. I like to think that without saying anything, we both say we’re sorry.

She opens her mouth and a script comes out. Waistbands. Groin. Buttocks. Using the back of her hands. Words you’d never hear in conversation, like “inform.” She does her best to avoid eye contact. Is she really talking to me? I want to say something pithy to make her smile. “This is not my first rodeo.” It sounds stupid, so I don’t.

When she asks about any tender spots she should know about, I say my belly is sensitive because I’m pregnant, even though it hasn’t been that sensitive for weeks. It’s an experiment, I guess. Typically when I tell people I’m pregnant, they smile and say “Congratulations.” I’ve made the comment three or four times before pat downs in the last few weeks, and so far security officers have just nodded — if that — and moved on.

Her ambivalence makes sense. There’s no point to warmth in a freezer, and I can’t say I expect a different reaction. But it’d be nice if someone, someday, took the bait and followed me out of this suffocating artifice, process, procedure and legal fears be damned.

On an Alaska Airlines flight back home this weekend, the fast-talking pilot told a little joke. It was in the speech highlighting the “safety features of this aircraft,” just into the part about the oxygen masks. “If you’re sitting next to a child or someone acting like a child, put your mask on first before assisting the child.” We all snickered. Personality where there’d been only protocol. It was nice.

At security, I hold my arms out when she asks, put them down when she asks, watch travelers and security officers alike suppress their humanity for the sake of our safety, the body scanners and metal detectors watching over it all. We’re at our best when we look each other in the eye, not at an X-ray image of each other’s belongings.

I never want the private pat down. It’s the impersonal theater of this that bugs me, and I’m convinced playing our roles in private wouldn’t stop the show.

By the time the security officer’s checked her gloves for god knows what chemicals she’d have picked up from my clothes, I’m drained. Dismissed, I pull on my boots, throw my backpack over my shoulder, and pull out my phone to check Facebook, respond on Twitter, send a text, make a call, anything to recharge and reconnect with a human being. It’s easier to do that with people far away than with the people swirling all around me.

Technologies of distrust are toxic, but necessary. If we can keep our exposure to a minimum, I think we’ll all be grateful.

Comments

  • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

    Just to clarify on the Europe ban: that’s for the backscatter X-ray devices (the big blue boxes you walk between, which is all they have at SEA). The millimeter wave devices (the clear circular chambers that look like they should be used as Star Trek transporters) are not banned, I recall, and are in use in a number of airports. They’re also the only ones I’ll use. Otherwise, I tell the TSA agent that: I’ve done the pat down before, in public is fine, and I don’t have any implanted medical devices. That seems to speed up the pre-flight light massage.

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      Thanks for clarifying. Yup, there are two types of body scanners, and the millimeter wave ones seem to be under less scrutiny than the backscatter scanners.

      • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

        And, of course, congratulations!

    • Anonymous

      That is not true. Germany banned all of the scanners because of failure rates. The rest of the EU except England banned only the backscatter x-ray devices.

  • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

    Just to clarify on the Europe ban: that’s for the backscatter X-ray devices (the big blue boxes you walk between, which is all they have at SEA). The millimeter wave devices (the clear circular chambers that look like they should be used as Star Trek transporters) are not banned, I recall, and are in use in a number of airports. They’re also the only ones I’ll use. Otherwise, I tell the TSA agent that: I’ve done the pat down before, in public is fine, and I don’t have any implanted medical devices. That seems to speed up the pre-flight light massage.

  • Anonymous

    Keep voting for the same stupid congressmen and presidents. Yes, those tyrants who trample the Bill of Rights and Constitution. Now we have NDAA 2012 and can be indefinitely detained by the military with no trial or right to an attorney.

    21 reasons scientists oppose body scanners

    http://warondriving.com/post/9114691887/tsa-bodyscanners

  • MikeAndrews

    The whole process is setup to make you feel that if you aren’t “following orders” then you must be a terrorist (or supporter). I won’t go as far as some others to say that it’s an attempt at social conditioning but I will say that security theatre is much easier than doing *real* security, and these scanners aren’t doing anything

  • http://twitter.com/kegill Kathy E Gill

    Hi, Monica – I reject the scanner for philosophical reasons as well as my distrust of the slapdash health studies. (Frank – I reject both kinds) It’s security theatre. 

    I disagree that all of these technologies are necessary. For example, with the red light camera, there is research about unintended consequence of people getting rear-ended because they stop when the driver behind them thinks they’ll keep going as well as research that shows if the goal is to prevent accidents in the intersection the better action is to lengthen the time of the caution/yellow light.

  • Anonymous

    TSA could speed up airport
    screening if the scanners as a secondary screening device as originally
    intended. It takes 12 seconds per passenger to go through the scanner but only
    2 seconds for the metal detector. This adds up when there are hundreds of people
    in line.

    Besides almost all of the items
    found by TSA in 2011 were found using the x-ray belt and walk through metal
    detectors, not the scanners.

    Germany abandoned them and went
    back to metal detectors because of the 54% false positive rate with MMW while
    failing to detect items 40% of the time. The scanners are only used on 30% of
    passengers, the rest are sent through metal detectors so these aren’t making
    anyone “safer” if only some passengers are scanned.

    These also place an unfair burden
    on those with ostomy appliances, insulin pumps and women wearing sanitary
    products. These people will receive a full body pat down at minimum and may be
    subjected to a strip search like the three women at JFK airport.
     

    • jason

      @Fisher1949:disqus that is false! if you have an insulin pump and go through a metal detector you would alarm and receive a full pat down! if you go through the millimeter wave thing they just check where the pump is and test your hands and your clear

  • Jamie

    On a visit to New York last year (my first to the US) I was genuinely astonished by the sheer rudeness of TSA staff. To be perfectly honest I had assumed that all the writing about the behaviour TSA was overblown. In one memorable instance, one person completely blanked me when I asked him for help.

    Happily these were the only rude Americans I met on my entire trip. A truly weird anomaly.

  • Jason Thane

    Thank you, Monica!!

  • jason

    @68609eadb84d0b6f464c9550290b873a:disqus that is false! its done because if you are not cleared through a scanner you must be cleared in another way or some way! would you feel comfortable if anyone who decided to not go through the scanners just got to walk right onto a plane?

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