As an author, I believe freedom is an important word. For example, book banning is censorship, which is a restriction of our freedom. I also believe there are other restrictions on our freedoms that government continues to intrude upon. All of this is naturally under the guise of “keeping us safe.”
In the news this week, two elderly women were allegedly stripped searched as a result of prosthetics or other necessary health items that showed up in scans or because the passenger indicated ahead of time that they had these items. So how does this relate to books you ask. It relates because authors have to fly quite a bit to visit with readers. There are some places I can’t get to without flying. So I have one of three choices. Don’t go, find an alternative travel method, or suffer security at the airport.Then again, I can always write up ways of how one can attempt to thwart the system and do something really bad. It’s one of the things we authors do. We write to entertain and then make the good guys win so we have this sense that we might somehow control things when bad things happen. Think of all the books that are out there where terrible things come close to happening, but don’t because the hero/heroine saves the day. Wesley Snipes, Bruce Willis, all the dude who’ve played Bond? The list is numerous.
I used to love flying. Even after 9/11 I didn’t mind flying because although security was tightened and some of the new rules seemed a bit excessive, I was okay with them. Probably because I didn’t realize at the time how these security measures would continue to be tweaked and tightened. I also didn’t recognize how intrusive these measures were because I personally didn’t have anything on me or in me that would set off an alarm in security.
That all changed in 2007 when I received a defibrillator. From that point forward, I had to ask about the scanner and ensure it wasn’t magnetic so I didn’t nuke the device in my chest. It wasn’t an issue over the last four years. At least not until this past November when new scanners were put into operation at some airports, while magnetic ones continue to be used.
In November, I traveled to Dallas for the Readers and ‘ritas. I was excited about trip, and looking forward to meeting old friends and making new ones. When I arrived at Richmond, VA airport I had to go through the new scanners that locates any odd looking objects on your person. If you move, the machine automatically targets whatever part of the body moved. My defibrillator was seen on the new scanner, and when I moved slightly a trigger went off at the apex of my legs.
At no time was I instructed to stay perfectly still that the machine would trigger a body part if I moved. At no time was I asked if I had any medical devices. Truthfully, I didn’t think a whole lot about the scanner until AFTER I accidentally moved in the scanner and they made me go through it again. I still didn’t think there was anything to be worried about until a male TSA agent eyed me like I was a miscreant and sternly told me to stay where I was, and that the female TSA had to check me because the scanner had cited an anomaly. He didn’t say I’d be patted down, he just said the other TSA agent had to verify there wasn’t anything abnormal. I thought he meant they had to check the scan. He didn’t.
The female TSA officer approached me, and I don’t remember specifically what she said. I only remember something along the lines of she had to run her hand over me. I seriously don’t think I really understood what was about to happen, so I just sort of looked at her like a deer in the headlights and nodded. IN FRONT OF EVERYONE in the scanning area,the female TSA officer ran her hand across the top part of my chest, down across my breast then down to the apex of my thighs. With a polite, detached, nod, she cleared me. I cannot describe how shocked I was. Humiliated, I walked away feeling like I’d done something terribly wrong, even though intellectually I knew that wasn’t the case.
What I found totally unbelievable was that nothing in my carry-on luggage triggered any alarms. I was transporting about 30 small bendable fans that curl up into round objects. These fans are unusual in shape, have flexible wire, and I figured if there was anything on me that would trigger alarms, it would be those damn promo items. I’d deliberately put them in my carry-on because I was worried some zealous TSA inspector would break them trying to close up the box in my luggage if they opened it. At least I had some control of how my carry-on was opened, and I knew *I* would be careful not to break any while opening them up for inspection.
I arrived in Dallas, and had a wonderful time at the reader conference. It was a warm, friendly, and fun environment. When it came time to leave, my new friend Linda Dershem drove me to the airport where I went to the security area. The scanner looked odd, so I said I had a defibrillator and the male TSA agent told me it was a magnetic scanner. Okay, can’t do that because magnets blow up my defibrillator (not really, it just kills them and I then have to get a new one via surgery).
At this point I was resigned to the fact that I would most likely have to have another pat down, but since I’d survived the one in Richmond, I thought I’d be okay in Dallas. I approached the female TSA agent on duty, and said I had a defibrillator, and that I had a card with the device’s serial number on it. She indicated that I would have to undergo a search, and I responded it would have to be private inspection as I was a survivor of rape. She took me to a stairwell with another TSA agent to perform the search.
The pat down in private was FAR WORSE than my experience in Richmond. The inspection was conducted in an out of the way stairwell, and it was as detailed as one might expect by police making an arrest. I stood there trembling and trying not to cry as the officer ran her hands over me. She made me put one foot forward so she could inspect the INSIDE of my leg from thigh to ankle on both legs. Although her touch was not inappropriate for a security search (that is she didn’t fondle me), it still devastated me. Not only did I have flashbacks due to my inability to say no (I had to get home), the entire process made me feel as though I was a criminal. My only crime was to have a defibrillator installed in my chest and be the survivor of sexual assault. NOT ONCE did the officer apologize for having to follow protocol or reassure me that it would be okay, even though I had reiterated to her that I was a sexual assault survivor.
The TSA should make agents go through SENSITIVITY TRAINING. Conducting pat downs on airline passengers in the way one searches criminals is wrong. In this country, we are deemed innocent until proven guilty. Passengers are ordinary people who in almost every single instance are law-abiding citizens. If a pat down is deemed necessary, it should be conducted in a manner that assures the dignity and comfort of the passenger.
There are those who state that they want these security measures in place because they want to feel safe when they fly. My own husband, while sympathetic, is still convinced we need these type of security measures. He is one of many who say they’re willing to endure these TSA checks to feel safe. I challenge that thought on two fronts.
First, we will NEVER be safe again on any public transport. Eventually, someone smart enough will beat the system, and then whomever’s time is up will be on that plane, train or subway when that terrorist ends it all. There is no avoiding fate. We are attempting to rationalize a fear with security that continues to intrude in an irrational fashion. If the TSA is so worried about security, why do airlines still offer first-class passengers silverware with their meals? A reader in Dallas indicated that they’d been able to get onto the airplane with knitting needles in their bag. SERIOUSLY. Am I the only one who doesn’t see the potential for a terrorist to hold someone hostage, get one of the plane doors open to depressurize the cabin, push people out of the cabin and many lives are still lost?? But then I’m an author and my imagination is such that I dream up these kind of bad things for a living (or the semblance of one). All I can say is that everyone should be glad I’m an author and not a psychopath!
Second, the majority of people who support the current security measures in place have never had to endure what I and others have (I imagine the first time another man brushes their hand across my husband’s testicles will be the day he rethinks his position). It’s easy to support security that isn’t going to affect you emotionally. Inconvenience you perhaps, but that’s not the same thing as trauma. A pat down for someone with a past such as mine is more than humiliating. It brings up the past in a traumatic way with flashbacks. This is not to say that I should be exempt from pat downs. This is an emphatic statement that if the TSA and the public continue to demand security measures of this kind, the security measures should be done with greater sensitivity and with the comfort of the passenger in mind.
As a writer, my mind goes into story mode on this whole mess. If I really wanted to be a terrorist. I’d be a martial arts expert, take out the two TSA agents who were present at my pat down, pull out a second airline ticket I had hidden in my bra, quietly disappear into the terminal and board the other plane I was intent on destroying. See how my writer’s imagination works? It’s only a matter of time. The minute I write the story, it will happen. There’s a reason why they say that truth is stranger than fiction.
Something Needs to Change
Finally, as an Army veteran, I served honorably to preserve our freedoms. Keeping the US secure is clearly an important issue for me. I support rules in place of chaos, but I also know we should temper our need for feeling safe with logic and sensitivity. The TSA displays a distinct leaning for being over zealous in its desire to make the public feel safe by flying. Note I say “make the public feel safe.” The reality is, there is no safety anywhere. That said, if the TSA insists on continuing with pat downs when they won’t accept verifiable medical device info (i.e., accessing a database with my defibrillator info or provide card-carrying, holographic IDs for those with medical devices) then they need to put their agents through sensitivity training. The female agent in Dallas could have made my experience far less traumatic if she’d taken into account my explanation of being a sexual assault survivor. As it was, she acted as though she could have cared less that I was distraught.
In the future, I’ll be staying at home, traveling by train and car unless circumstances FORCE me to fly. It looks like going to London and Rome are no longer on my bucket list unless I win the lottery and can afford to rent my own jet. Oh! There’s a new scenario. A terrorist rents a mid-size jet and crashes it into another building. We are not safe, no matter what we’d like to think.
Feel free to express your opinion either way on this rant. It’s opinion after all, and I don’t expect agreement from everyone. But a little logic would be most welcome from the TSA.