The TSA Backscatter Lottery

Sitting in the diner in Nashville’s airport, my mind is fixed on a few things. First, the task ahead of me: Get out, pay, and get to my gate—on the other side of the airport why did I choose to come here because everything’s kosher and therefore better—before my plane leaves; Second, after hearing something about a storm: Dear God, is the storm going to hit the Midwest why are they showing nothing but ESPN where I’m sitting?; and third: what will happen to my friend who touched my crotch?

See, I just won the TSA backscatter lottery. I’d spent the entire time in the winding security line watching the monsters, thinking about what I’d do if I was pulled aside to be put in one of those things. They’re about nine or ten feet tall with an electronic nest on the top and Plexiglas sides—so you can tell that no one’s being gassed inside, I guess. It’s an addition—not really an alternative—to the metal detectors we’ve been used to our entire lives. An addition that has proven to be very controversial, as you, an Informed Member of American Democracy, probably know.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. All the reading I’d done online was torn between either “This is another example of Hitler government intruding on good American lives and treating citizens like criminals!” or: “I’d rather have that than be blown to smithereens in the air!” As an aside: don’t listen to any debate taking place with exclamation points. And then the TSA agents themselves, oy, they’re talked about as if they were the Gestapo.

I figured out that, at BNA at least, the screening works on a one-at-a-time principle. If there’s someone in the machine while you’re in line, you probably won’t go in. However, if it’s empty, you’re going in the machine. It’s more of an orderly queue than a lottery, but ‘lottery’ has a better sound than ‘queue’ ever will.

Even considering all the valid complaints, it seems like it’s a fair system. As far as I could tell, everyone in the machines looked pretty WASPy, so I didn’t see anything like profiling going on in regards to the machines. And, if the TSA website is to be believed, then all of the images are deleted a couple seconds after being taken. However, I’ve known enough programmers to know that all it takes is one deviant with a rudimentary coding knowledge and a USB flash drive for all of that to fall to the wayside. (This might also mean that the images just go into the Recycle Bin; but let’s ignore that, shall we?)

As luck would have it, I put all my stuff on the belt to be scanned and, right then, the guy in the machine stepped out, and the oddly-flushed TSA agent pointed at me and said, “This way, sir.”

I’m not a supremely audible person at any time, but in the mornings when I haven’t had coffee, I’m mute. “May I opt-out?” is what I wanted to say. What I said was more, “Muh wuh ow.”

The guy paused for a second and said, “Are all of your items out of your pockets?”

I nodded. “Muh wuh ow?”

The agent asked again.

This time, I cleared my throat so well my sinuses cleared up for the first time in two weeks. The sound reverberated across the security area in BNA. People looked over, some in disgust, some in awe. “Opt-out?” I managed.

“Oh,” said the guy. “Of course, sir.” He flicked on the transmitter hooked onto his shirt pocket. “Male opt-out in line four,” he said. And then, much to my surprise, it echoed from every speaker in the security section.

I felt like a celebrity. Even though I was apparently making a scene by not wanting to step into the machine, for all I was concerned, the speakers might as well have said, “Aaron Simon, BA, MA, Phi Beta Kappa, and published author is now in the security area. Everyone turn and look.” I waved for my non-existent audience, probably making the guy think was certifiable to a certain extent, and then snapped back to reality with a slightly more subdued clear of the throat.

The guy behind me, a vaguely Latino guy with nice glasses, a sweater that looked a whole lot better than mine, and a trimmed beard—the opposite of mine, which had passed the homeless stage and was now in the respectable mountain man stage—said, “Fuck that, I ain’t goin in that fuckin thing. Shit,” in possibly the most insanely rural Middle Tennessee accent I’ve ever heard. So he stepped back, back against the column with me.

His agent also spoke into his walkie-talkie. I liked to think I was starting a movement, right there. A movement against somewhat invasive security measures in the name of making air travel safer—an absurd statement, since you were more likely to be struck by lightning seven times in a row than to be killed by a terrorist on a flight. For a moment, I saw myself making the rounds on talk shows, injecting much-needed serenity to the likes of Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann. Maybe I’d go on Oprah, and then I’d name-drop my book, The Adventures of Cloyd Blank, now in the editing process, and it would become a mega-best-seller when it was published. And then, off with Stephenie Meyer’s head.

Instead, the woman behind him, a very Southern woman with a poof of hair and who just oozed Southern Baptist, walked into the machine. The momentum was halted. Yet another reason the Baptists were on my shit list. Another TSA agent walked up and stopped at the other side of the metal detector. He was a large man, even more flushed than the first guy, and sweating to boot. He said, “Who’s first? Guy on the left?”

I pointed to my Latino friend, for he was on my left.

The agent said, “No, you.”

“Oh,” I said. I thought about pointing out that while I was on his left, I was on the column’s right, and thus was not on my left. I didn’t, though; this wasn’t the time for a Larry David moment, no matter how right I was.

I stepped through and first laid eyes upon the person who would give me the most action I’d had in months. He looked like he should be in a Musicology class instead of in a blueberry-blue uniform. He was a tall African-American man with studious glasses and dreadlocks bedecked in colored beads. “Hey,” he said.

“Hi,” I said.

“Those your bags?” he asked, pointing at a set of four trays holding Prada handbags and a pair of high heels.

“Only on the weekends,” I said.

We laughed. Two more TSA agents walked up to my left—the real left, as far as I was concerned—and I shut up. They probably wouldn’t find my humor funny; they didn’t look like they’d gone to college.

After the four cartons popped out of the X-Ray machine, my carton, stuffed to the top with my European Carry-All, shoes, belt, hat, belt, and other implements of destruction, slid out, with the carton containing my Mac following behind. “All right if I put this on top of your laptop?” My dreadlocked friend asked.

“Er,” I said.

He took that for a yes and made to stack. Now, I recently had a freak out with my computer, and was a bit paranoid with someone else touching it, so I went for it to put the laptop on top of the other carton.

“No,” said the guy. “You can’t touch it.”

“Oh, shit,” I said. I withdrew the offending hand and was sure that I’d be faced with civil charges or, at the very least, probing—and not the in-depth interview kind.

However, that did not transpire, and we walked over to the clear screening area where Dreadlocks snapped on blue latex gloves and explained the pat-down to me. He mentioned that since he’d be going near my no-no place (not his words), I could ask to be moved to the private area. I took this as him hitting on me, and said, “No, thanks, I’m into the women. Good God, Scarlett Johansson, am I right?”

“What?” he asked, legitimately confused.

I was never good at signals. “Oh,” I said, “nothing.”

I assumed the position and the pat-down commenced. I’d been braced for being fully groped, treated as if I was a prostitute and the TSA agent was a well-paying john. But, as it turned out, Dreadlocks didn’t seem to want to ‘touch my junk’ any more than I’d wanted to step through something that looked like an escape pod. Dreads explained the process and proceeded. In all honesty, the pat down wasn’t any different than anything I’d received pre-backscatter, when I’d occasionally forget to take my belt off, set off the metal detector and receive a pat down.

I mean, here’s the thing: You can argue that the process is an unnecessary one and that it’s, by and large, a further example of paranoia infiltrating what should be a non-invasive system without the possibility that your naked, Dr. Manhattan-ified body will show up on some website, probably called backscatterlolz.com and only accessible by scanners in blueberry blue uniforms. You can argue that, and it will be valid, but when a person starts basing those arguments on TSA agents groping their testicles and treating them like stress balls, the argument degenerates into paranoid-schizophrenic claims that the backscatter and pat-down process is further proof that Big Brother government is on the way, and soon our Toshiba flat screens will be acting as reverse cameras, showing our actions to bureaucrats in the Ministry of Security.

Basically, what I’m thinking of in talking about this is the now-infamous madman who said to the TSA agent, “If you touch my junk, I’ll have you arrested.” That’s exactly the wrong reaction to have. I agree, when someone says, “when you bought that ticket, you gave up certain rights,” then it’s time to think critically; however, in relation to the rights of free speech, religion, not to be detained without reason, habeas corpus, etc, etc, the right to not be pat down at the airport in lieu of being photographed seems to be one that’s not that big of a deal.

As for the junk man’s being threatened with a civil suit after refusing the pat down and the backscatter, well, I sympathize to a certain extent, but the man doesn’t seem to realize that the treatment he received was because he was displaying the exact behavior these security forces are trained to spot in terrorists. Being a patriot is good, but acting like a hormone-ridden idiot of a teenager is not the way to display yourself as a patriot. But, then again, a solid debate of the state of security affairs in the country won’t land you ratings, advertisements, and a metric shitton of pageviews.

Anyway, after the pat-down had finished, Dreadlocks said, “One moment, please,” went over to a station to remove his gloves, possibly jot down a tally in the opt-out column or something, and then returned shortly afterwards to tell me I was good to go. The most eventful thing that happened after that wasn’t that being quietly stalked by TSA agents or Feds convinced that I was a threat to the hegemony of government control of the peoples’ movements. It was that I almost forgot my hat in the screening area.

Oh, wait, not really. It was hearing someone ask for an “Egg McMuffin thing, but not actually an Egg McMuffin” at the diner. Who does that?

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