Whose security? My recent experience with the TSA

In three recent travel experiences, I’ve been pulled aside for a pat down, one of which was so invasive that it left me shaken and wanting to crawl out of my own skin afterward. I was on my way to a business meeting, just about to step out of the body scanner machine to grab my shoes and laptop off the belt, when the TSA screener told me she’d have to pat me down. I was confused but I stopped and lifted my shirt to show her my waistband in the front and back as I was told to. I was standing barefoot in a crowded public space. A spectacle.

I couldn’t process her words as she explained what she was about to do, but the next thing I knew, her hands were moving deep into my thigh creases in the front and back, and up and down my hips and backside. Being singled out unexpectedly and touched in a deeply personal way by a complete stranger rattled me to the core. As I finally gathered my shoes and laptop, I felt shame as I wondered what I’d done wrong to deserve this.

There is a deep humiliation and fear that comes with the experience of being patted down. One minute, I was a busy working mom in Banana Republic slacks trying to make a 7am flight; the next minute, I stood accused of a crime that didn’t exist, trying to reconcile my innocence with the feeling of a stranger’s hand between my legs.

What is it about my magical groin area that makes it sparkle and shimmer for the body scanner and makes it so tantalizing for TSA screeners? It’s humiliating enough to assume the position, holding steady for three long seconds with your bare feet on the yellow footprints and your arms helplessly above your head. Then you step out of the machine and you’re told to wait on the line because some part of your person represents a potential threat to national security. This happened to me again on Friday while I was traveling from Oakland to Denver to attend my cousin’s funeral. I tolerated my pat down and asked the TSA agent what I could do to avoid this in the future. Maybe it’s the dark tattoo on my low back that sets off the machine or the fact that I like to layer tank tops under my blouses, she said.

The next day, on my way home from Denver, the body scanner once again revealed some bright object of concern around my groin area. My heart sank, hard and fast.

When I got pulled aside, I viscerally reacted and surprised the hell out of myself by speaking up. I was in fight or flight mode. I was desperate. In a shaking voice, I told the screener, “I don’t want you to touch me. Is there any other option?”

She said, “Ma’am, we need to check this area,” gesturing to my waist and hips. “Are you wearing a belt?” No I wasn’t. This time I said, “Do I have a choice? Can I go through the machine again?” I started to unbutton my jeans, thinking that if I showed her once more there was nothing suspicious in my waistband she’d let me by. “Ma’am, I don’t want you to strip for me,” she said with a chuckle.

Then I lost it. “I’m coming from a funeral, I just want to go home, and I don’t want a stranger touching me right now.” So she called a supervisor. I was offered a private screening. I said, “That won’t help. The issue is I don’t want to be touched right now. I haven’t done anything wrong.” At this point the supervisor explained (very gently) that they couldn’t let me go without patting me down, so I buried my face in my hands and let them touch me while I sobbed.

I’m sure there were a million things going on yesterday that led me to react this way — a day spent bawling my eyes out at altitude, lack of sleep, missing my own family, stress — and I’m still asking myself if I over-reacted. I’m sure I could have done a better job at controlling my emotions and just being compliant. Typically I’m never one to speak up or make a scene, but yesterday, I had no capacity to endure the feeling of being violated when I’d done nothing wrong.

I’ve got plans to travel three times in the next three months, and the mere thought of passing through TSA screening fills me with dread. In my privileged life I can only imagine an iota of the fear and violation black people experience when being stopped and frisked or singled out for no reason. I can only imagine being a survivor of incest or rape and having to relive a trauma. I rarely get political or even spun up, so forgive my language, but the TSA can go fuck itself.

So back to this funeral I’d just come from. The pastor’s parting words to us were from Swiss philosopher Henri Fredric Amiel. “Life is short. And we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who make the journey with us. So be swift to love, and make haste to be kind.” With those words ringing in my ears, the TSA’s actions were anything but kind. Let me be clear, I have no beef with the woman who patted me down or her supervisor. Both were polite and respectful and tried to make the situation as painless as possible for my visibly distraught self. Both were just doing their jobs.

That said; I was looking for compassion. I was looking for an exception to the rule. I was looking for the clerk who hands me the coffee even if I’m 20 cents short, or the boss who tells me to knock off early when I’m over-worked. I’ve been on the giving and receiving ends of these interactions; the grace with which we humans treat each other when we’re suffering, grieving or just having an off day. So yesterday, I wanted it to be, “You look like a reasonable human, who is clearly having a hard time, and so today, and today only, I will give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you are not smuggling a weapon in your vagina.”

I know that TSA is there for a reason, to protect the safety of our skies and keep Americans safe. I try to assume best intentions in all interactions, and perhaps some day they will pat down a 38 year old distraught looking white woman in mom jeans and find the weapon they’re looking for. But likely not.

The TSA security theater leaves no loopholes for grace, and frankly, common sense. I wonder if that weighs on its employees. I remember the TSA agent who made me pry my daughter’s cloth lovey out of her hands and put it on the x-ray belt while I carried her through the scanner on our way to Hawaii last summer. I glowered at him as she wailed. And then I wondered how many times a day does this scene repeat itself? This man makes babies cry for a living. No one deserves this.

My husband Tony Martin-Vegue told me a story about when he traveled to Israel about 15 years ago and got pulled aside for an airport security screening that bordered on interrogation. While he was ruffled by the experience, he was not surprised once he realized that the screeners were carefully identifying those passengers who fit a certain profile. He says anyone who has flown El Al Airlines will be familiar with this experience. Back home in the U.S., we’re afraid to use words like “profiling” because everyone must be treated equally. But the fact is, I get pulled over for screening far more often than my husband, a military age man of ambiguous ethnic background and a checkered passport, because something about my physiology or dress sets off the machines.

I’m not advocating that we get rid of the machines and the screening. This is important work that keeps us safe. I am advocating that we allow the human factor to play a role in our nation’s safety. Remember the movie Sully? At the National Transportation Safety Board hearing, Captain Sullenberger made the argument that the aircraft landing simulations don’t take into account the human factor, that humans need time to analyze a situation, rationalize the risk taking their own judgment and experience into account, and then make an informed choice.

Those body scanner machines with their glowing suspicious shadows override judgment and common sense in favor of automation and protocol. In fact, the TSA has just introduced a new universal pat down that “lessens the cognitive burden for our officers,” according to the agency. Instead, I posit that “cognitive burden” might actually contribute to enhanced security while also reducing unnecessary physically and emotionally invasive searches. What if instead we empower TSA screeners with their own humanity in the hopes we might start to see better outcomes?