Tell TSA clerks to keep their hands to themselves

by Sommer Gentry on April 12, 2013

anna gutermuth
Last Friday I told the TSA no. You should, too.

I stepped into a millimeter wave body scanner in the Baltimore airport, the kind that displays a generic outline rather than a detailed nude image. (A nude image is still created, but the TSA claims no one is looking at it.) The machine gave a false positive, flagging something on my back. Perhaps it was my bra fastener.

Then again, it could’ve been anything: as we’ve written repeatedly, the millimeter wave scanners have a 54% false-positive rate, so they alarm on people for no reason all the time.

A horrific sexual assault by the TSA at this very same airport a few years ago left me shattered. I can never and will never endure another TSA grope. So I told the screeners that I absolutely would not allow anyone to touch me. At first, they tried to push me into accepting a private room screening, but I replied that I would not allow them to molest me in private nor in public.

I asked for a second body scan instead, and received one. The second time, nothing was flagged. Everyone at the checkpoint could see from the green “OK” that the first scan was a false positive.

But then the big boss bully arrived, a woman in a navy-colored polo shirt labeled “TSA Inspector.” She was angry. She threatened me, telling me I was in real trouble now, that she was a federal agent, that I was testing their system, that I knew too much about TSA procedures, that she was going to pull an NCIS (criminal background check), et cetera.

As the TSA’s rottweiler yelled these accusations and warnings, she kept moving closer and closer to me. I kept backing up, telling her aloud that she was standing too close, that I wanted her to leave me alone, that she was scaring me. I told her to stop coming at me. She kept advancing, pushing me backward until I was comically wound up in the vinyl Tensabarrier they had caged me in.

I thought to myself, Wow, do they teach these tactics in bully-school or what? She’s trying to provoke me. It’s textbook TSA behavior.

I demanded that the police be called. At least police officers have had training in the Bill of Rights. When the police got there, they studiously avoided taking sides and claimed they were “just there to keep the peace.” One officer offered to help me obtain the checkpoint video.

The impotent bully in her ill-fitting TSA shirt huffed and puffed and threatened to fine me for refusing screening. I told her that as many times as that bogus $11,000 fine has been invoked, not one person has ever paid it, and that she wasn’t going to intimidate me. She protested that I was “over here making eyes at [one of the police officers], trying to get his sympathy.”

Yes, after insinuating that I was a terrorist, she tried to slut-shame me.

I told the police that I wanted to leave immediately. That I wouldn’t let the TSA assault me. That I understood it meant I would miss my flight but that my safety comes first. After about ten minutes I reminded them, “I don’t want to be here; I want to leave the airport. I want to leave now. Am I being detained? Are you detaining me? Why am I being detained?” This effort was rewarded within 30 seconds when I was escorted to the checkpoint exit.

I changed my flight from the 7:15 to the 9:35, and had an entirely uneventful second pass through security. At the later flight, all body scanners had ceased operation and I walked through a metal detector.

What do I hope you take away from my experience? First, the TSA’s body scanners have an enormous false positive rate that leads to patdowns. Scanner-versus-patdown is not an either/or choice. Often, passengers endure both. Please remember to mention that scanners cause patdowns that otherwise wouldn’t occur when you register your complaint about the body scanner program here: tinyurl.com/TSAcomment

Second, there is nothing to fear in telling the TSA no. Because the TSA has steadfastly refused to explain in plain English what their screening procedures are, it’s always possible you will be ordered to do something abhorrent or sexually exploitative (TSA’s sexist nonsense has a long history).  It’s possible you will be ordered to do something that you can’t do safely. Be ready to say no!

The TSA might try to strip-search you, assault you, confiscate your medical supplies, or damage your medical devices. The TSA might illegally question you, demand that you pump your breast milk for them (or drink it), or photocopy your credit cards and checks. Listen up, TSA bullies – the answer is no.

The worst thing the TSA can do is bar you from your boarding gate. No, strike that: the worst thing that the TSA can do is force you to participate in your own victimization. Missing a plane pales in comparison. There is always another plane, and since checkpoint experiences are so inconsistent, it’s possible that the next checkpoint visit won’t be objectionable in the same way.

The TSA’s clerks behave as though they have limitless power to abuse innocent travelers. It’s time we put a stop to it, and saying NO is a powerful message. Don’t let checkpoint bullies intimidate you into participating in your own defilement. Standing up for yourself and your safety is always an option.

(Photo: anna gutermuth/Flickr Creative Commons)

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