Dignity Doesn't Fly

The meaning of the TSA's latest intrusions


That the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has saved a single life is unproven and doubtful. But it did something good for the country last fall by provoking a long overdue reaction against bureaucratic bullying.

The TSA has been rolling out more of its "Advanced Imaging Technology" scanners, with the goal of having 1,000 in service by the end of 2011, covering around half of the security lanes at our nation's airports. These machines demand more of us than just striding through, as with the traditional metal detector. That can be done with some semblance of dignity.

The new scanners that stand between us and our right to travel freely—a right hallowed in Western tradition back to Magna Carta, where movement in and out of the realm was protected even for foreigners—require us to stop and spread our limbs submissively. We are then doused with X-rays or millimeter waves to produce a bizarrely inhuman yet laid-bare image for a bureaucrat to contemplate, ogle, or blankly run his tired eyes over. Anyone who refuses to submit to this electromagnetic strip search is required by TSA policy to undergo a very through pawing and pat down, including between the legs.

Yet shortly before Thanksgiving, one brave American, John Tyner, became a national hero for recording himself resisting a TSA agent's attempts to molest him at the San Diego airport, an incident that popularized the slogan "don't touch my junk!" The idea that the TSA was ramping up its assaults on our dignity and privacy for no discernable benefit swept the country. The push back culminated in organized calls for everyone to opt out of the scans on the day before Thanksgiving—overcome the system by overloading it.

The new technologies are undignified and meant to be. The illusion of choice surrounding their use is intended to funnel us into an even more undignified situation. Be exposed electronically in full, or physically molested, or go back home. These are unprecedented demands on Americans moving through the theoretically free world, not some penitentiary or asylum.

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