The pat down
Preface: On Saturday, I was travelling to Chicago from Colorado when I was stopped by the TSA and received extra screening. Such an experience was an unusual one for me, and probably not one that most white people have ever gone through. Discussing this experience with a Turkish friend, she told me that in all but one time that she’s traveled from a U.S. airport, security has searched her bag after seeing her passport.
I share these reflections mostly directed at a white audience. I know that my experience dealing with TSA security was far from the worst kind of dehumanizing, degrading experience possible in the act of being searched in this way, and as such I am not stating that I can understand what it must be like to be Black or Brown and be stopped by a law enforcement agency for no reason. Still, until this happened to me I could not have known how viscerally I detest this mass-surveillance system we’ve created, how humiliating it is to be searched when you know you’ve done nothing wrong. I wrote the following in my journal on the flight back, and I used the “you” form to talk myself through what had just happened, both in the airport and during my time at home. As such, I do not intend for the “you” to speak to anybody but myself. Still, should anything speak directly to you, the reader, I will not object.
Your whole world stops when the TSA officer starts to explain the pat down procedure. You try to remember the sequence of events that led you to this moment. You cannot. You try to explain to yourself why we’ve created this surveillance state. You cannot. You try to think about what freedom means, but your mind wanders from utopian dreaming to practical consideration: “When will I leave this TSA holding room?”
You are a white male. You can continuously reassure yourself that entirely nothing will happen to you. Even at your most scared, you know you’re probably right. Your body sets off some obscure TSA trigger, and you’re given your first pat down. You’re offered the chance to step out of public view, should you so desire. You acquiesce to a pat down right there. You are in shock. You are told how your body will be examined, where the blue gloves will go (around your waist, inside your pants). You don’t remember the words later. You never heard them in the first place, your mind racing in too many directions. Still, you sense that the agents are simply going through the motions. They do not suspect you of anything, even as they refuse to tell you when you’ll be free to leave their custody.
The TSA officer opens your bag. They examine the Minute Maid container, holding the Square Dance tea your mom gave you as a birthday present. You tell this to the officer as explanation, but you don’t hear the words as they come out of your mouth. Your mind races back to just 30 hours before, at your grandparents’ house. Your grandparents are both fundamentally kind, decent-hearted people. They are beyond giving to their kids and grandkids, funding college laptops for you and your sister and life altering surgeries for your father. You know they voted for Trump: according to your dad, your grandpa simply could not vote for Hillary and had to swallow the “poison pill” that is Donald Trump. You realize that you never had one meaningful conversation with your grandpa about politics during the campaign. When you tell him you will be working for a socialist magazine in the winter, he tells you that socialism doesn’t work in the real world. Your mind races with a million responses, but you know that now is not the right moment. You hope for the chance to have a productive conversation over winter break. You remind yourself that all human beings, yourself included, believe what they believe from firsthand experience. You know that you will learn a lot from the life he’s lived, and you hope he will learn from yours. In three weeks, you will travel to Copenhagen. You will see firsthand a society of modesty, a city with more bikes than cars, a nation with perhaps the most socialist government in the world. That will be your firsthand experience.
You are excited for the opportunity to live with a cultural history you’ve never known. Your grandparents’ last name is Anderson, denoting distant relatives from every Scandinavian country — all but Denmark, ironically. You realize your grandparents are still Scandinavian at heart, so full of modesty, always wearing wool sweaters and vest jackets, keeping to themselves and being kind to those around them. You are thankful for the opportunity to talk about your family history with both of them over winter break. Whatever attempts you may make at grasping at this history, you are still, at heart, white.
You are back on the plane. You are still somewhat numb. You have never been so thankful for your family. You reach into your bag, and grab a handful of your grandma’s homemade caramel corn. You take a bite, and you begin to cry. You smell the tea mix that your grandma has been making for your grandfather throughout all the decades and decades he’s been a square dance caller. It’s a gift your mom gave you Thursday night, on your shared birthday. Two nights earlier, as the Electoral College chose Donald Trump as our next president, she told you how much she missed celebrating November 10 together. You have not been home on that day since coming to college, and you buy yourself a surprise trip home for that Thursday. The gift is just as much for yourself as for her, you know, because in confusing times, you want to be close to the people you love.
You think back to the family hike in Manitou Springs eight hours earlier, and your heart rate slows. You plug in your headphones and return to listening to “Vibes and Stuff” by A Tribe Called Quest. You can begin to register your heart beating in its chest, and you flash back to waiting in the security line an hour before, listening to that same song. You are at peace, 48 hours at home enough to remind you of what matters in life. You are excited for the near future, but in this moment you are content that DIA security is so slow, letting you linger a second longer in this beautiful, cavernous mountain-capped tent. You watch the TSA agent escort a brown-skinned man wearing a flowing garment by the arm. You worry for a moment, but are thankful to see the agent leading the man, child in arm, through the less invasive metal detector. You push your bag through the machine.
You enter the full-body scanner, the same one you’ve passed through dozens of times at countless airports without ever fully understanding its function. Somehow, it seems that your shoulder always seems to set off their scanners. They pat down your arm, front and back, and get you on your way. Today, you lose the TSA lottery: there’s a mysterious grey box, hovering over your groin. You receive your first (public) pat down. Your hands are swabbed for suspicious chemicals, and your results come back positive. You blame the soap that lingered between your fingers when you washed your hands too quickly an hour earlier at Union Station, right before saying goodbye to your family. Your bag is searched, your family’s multigenerational tea recipe called into suspicion. You are lead into a holding room. Minutes tick by as you wait for the supervisor. Your heart races, but you are thankful for the THC coursing through your bloodstream, courtesy of the cherry chocolate pretzel edible you ate on the train. You hold your hands together against your stomach as if you were meditating, and hold back tears.
You are given instructions for pat down number two. The words come out gentle, considerate: “I’m going to reach into your waistband, first behind, then up front. I will guide the back of my hands against your crotch four times.” You have never felt so uncomfortable in your life, so violated. You are about to crumble, until the man with the blue-gloved hands inside your pants returns you to your whiteness. “Where are you flying to?” he asks. You mumble something out about Chicago, going to Northwestern. He tells you about growing up in Wheaton, how he misses the city sometimes. You say the same about Colorado. You realize you never had anything to worry about in the first place: this man never saw you as a threat. Your pat down is complete. You are given your belongings. You are restored your freedom–you ask yourself if it was ever fully taken from you in the first place.
After all, you do not really believe in this version of freedom, this white male world that hardly feels so free, even for the exact kind of person it’s designed for. You want a different freedom, one you still cannot define. So you write.