The Power of the Selectee

If you wish to fly in the United States, you will be scanned by a machine that produces a picture of your naked body. You may ask not to be scanned, but if you do, you will be groped by a TSA screener. This choice has been criticized as no choice at all, since both alternatives are degrading invasions of your privacy. But I disagree. There is a choice, and in that choice there is meaning.

Start again. If you wish to fly in the United States, you will be scanned. This is a degrading invasion of your privacy. But you may also choose, you may insist, to be groped instead. This too is a degrading invasion of your privacy, but it is not only that. By opting out of being scanned, you compel a TSA screener to grope you, which is also unpleasant and degrading for them.

These are the rules: be scanned or be groped. On this, the TSA is insistent. That insistence is a threat, but every threat is also a bluff. When you opt out, you call that bluff. You hold the system, the oppressive and degrading system, to its own rules. You expose the fictions, the oppressive and degrading fictions, on which that system depends, and around which it has crafted its rules. You cease to say, “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient.”

We are powerless, we who fly in the United States. We are powerless except for our human capacity of living within the truth. To opt out is to embrace the truth that the screening procedure is intrusive and degrading, and to bring another human being face to face with that truth. The choice is everything. If being groped were required for everyone, proceeding through the screening line would be just another moment of submission within a system of submission: another lie. But the choice is a truth and a form of power, the power of the powerless.

Remember your Havel, and opt out.

While, I agree with the whole politics of opting out, please remember that many of us do not have that luxury. That is, as a survivor of sexual assault, the pat down is absolutely not an option for me. It’s a threat.

So I’m just not going to fly until I can be absolutely sure that if I go to the airport, I will only have to go through the metal detectors, not through the scanners. Otherwise, I’m opting out of flying altogether.

phira, I don’t disagree. Your lack of a choice means that those of us who are privileged to have one also have a higher obligation to make it politically meaningful.

The right to say no , is the essence of freedom.

phia There are many who would understand what you are feeling.

The security value of this scanning is also doubtful. The hijacking of passenger aircraft for the sort of 9/11 use is no longer really a terrorist option; prior to 9/11 the trained response to hijacking was ‘keep still and wait for the negotiators’ to arrive. These days the passenger response would be to fight , ‘better to die on your feet than on your seat’.

And there are better chemical sniffer ways ways of detecting explosives, concealed on a suicidal, person than these scanners.

Ps - James are the results of these scans ,’automatically erased’?

The TSA claims that they are erased, but there have been cases in which scans have been retained.

There was a case in the UK where some employees of a security company were caught selling CTC footage of amorous couples in lifts, could be a market in ‘celebrity scans’.

Professor -

I agree with your point in principle, and plan to opt out on further travel. As a heterosexual white male without a history of sexual assault, I am thankfully in a position of privilege like the one you describe above.

What I’m wondering is - do you think TSA will get Havel’s message?

AP had a story ( with the following quote from a TSA employee:

“”I told him getting mad at me is not going to help things because I’m not a policy maker,” Soulia said. “… I don’t take it personal. After eight, nine years of this, I’ve developed a thick skin.””

Sometimes, people in positions of power can internalize acts of resistance as being ornery and in poor faith, and that can lead them to a) become more capricious with their power or b) at least unsympathetic to the grievances.

There’s no question that the TSA will perceive the power of the powerless - but how will they react?

pragmatically - how many people are to be ‘employed’ touching up complete strangers? Is this some sort of twisted ‘work relief’ scheme?

Sometimes, people in positions of power can internalize acts of resistance as being ornery and in poor faith, and that can lead them to a) become more capricious with their power or b) at least unsympathetic to the grievances.

That is an understatement.

“people in positions of power” who are drawn from the dominated of the dominant can be pretty awful.

What is wrong with you people. Just walk through the scanner … it is no big deal. Do you remember 911? Why do you care if someone you never meet sees a weird scan of your body for a few seconds?

If somebody steals my intellectual property, I’m pissed off, but these scans aren’t stealing or invading anything, worthwhile anyways.

If you want to be groped, then go for it, but remember — you’re the sicko.

Opt out of the GBS, but just walk through the scanner already and keep the line moving.

If this is meant to be an analogy to the proposed Google Settlement, it’s false. There, I cannot make a choice as to whether Google has scanned or will continue to scan my books, or whether they will use those scans (unless I accept a payment, copyright, and control scheme highly detrimental to me). Either way, they grab, I lose. Not much of a choice.

On the other hand, I can not only freely choose not to fly, I in fact don’t fly. At all.

Sally, I appreciate that you don’t consider being scanned by a machine that produces a representation of the surface of your skin to be intrusive. Many people do, however, with a strong, visceral reaction. (In my informal surveys of students, I find the fraction tends to be somewhere between a quarter and a half.) My concern is on their behalf—and by extension, on yours, in the other areas of your life that you consider private.

Preventing mass murder is a reasonable reason for some intrusions into privacy. However because the likely response of passengers after 9/11 would be to fight, the use of passenger aircraft as crude cruise missiles is no longer a real possibility. The scans might pick up some concealed non ferrous weapons/bombs that would otherwise escape metal detectors/ chemical sniffers.. But the universality of the scanners searching of all passengers might be the appeal of the idea. At the moment body searches are very skewed towards people of ‘middle eastern’ appearance and this is alienating a lot of, respectable law abiding, people of ‘middle eastern’ appearance.

Good points James. However, as my husband learned on two flights recently, there is a large group of Americans who do not have a choice. Even if they go through the scanner, they will still get the pat-down, and maybe even have their hands scanned for weapon making residue.

Who are these dangerous people, you may ask. They are none other than senior citizens with joint replacements. Yes folks, the TSA has apparently decided that we have a new terrorist group in this country: Golden Age Jihadists.

I am not making this up. Recently, we had to fly to and from Wichita, KS. My husband is a 65 year old, silver haired, very white American looking university professor who had a hip replacement last year. In spite of the fact that he has a card from his doctor to show TSA, university ID, and looks about as much like a terrorist as Norman Rockwell, when he went through the scanner at National airport, TSA pulled him over for a pat-down. Apparently, this was because they saw an artificial hip where an artificial hip would be — just like the card they handed him said it would. Unfortunately, they did not have a “trained technician” close by to perform the pat-down. (Yes, the gropers are specially trained to grope with technical skill.) By the time they found someone qualified to properly grope him, my husband nearly missed his flight.

On the return trip, the same thing happened. As soon as the hip showed up on the scan, TSA decided to do a pat down. This time, though, for good measure, they scanned his hands for weapons making residue.

At the boarding gate, we spoke to a woman who looked as dangerous as Grandma Moses and she told us this happens to her every time she flies, because of knee replacements. She also told us that the TSA people will insist that she go through scanners that are dangerous for her because she has a pacemaker, even when she shows them her card about it.

When we got home, our daughter, who is a Starbuck’s barrista, told us an even more ridiculous story she’d heard from the visiting brother of a regular customer. This young man served in Iraq and lost an arm, so he has a metal prosthetic arm. He also has military ID. The first time he flew with the arm, he went through the scanner and TSA said they needed to do a pat-down. The TSA agent doing the pat down felt his arm and asked if he worked out a lot. (So much for grope training.) Then they made him take the arm off and told him to “hold out his hands” which he did, by holding out the artificial arm in his other hand.

Another time, TSA made him take off his arm and took it away into a back room to examine it. This wounded vet was even advised by his doctor to leave his arm at home when he flew. Apparently, he’s a very easy-going guy, and his solution to all this has been to put the arm in his checked luggage when he flies. Though he has learned to pack the arm on top because TSA always goes through his bag and they make less mess when the arm is on top.

Clearly, putting their hips and knees in checked luggage is not an option for the Golden Agers, so they are just going to have to resign themselves to being treated as suspects. Indeed, the Washington Post had a letter this week from a woman telling how TSA actually looked into the Depends worn by her elderly mother, who was in a wheelchair and being moved to live closer to her children.

Yes we need security, but we also need some common sense and efficient use of resources. If the people at TSA actually believe that any passenger with a joint replacement or artificial limb is likely to be a terrorist, they are not being realistic and they are wasting a lot of their time and our money.

James, I’d expect you to argue that the scans are “fair use.”

Scan my body momentarily (really, what use does that have other than to assure that I am not harboring weapons?) — fine … scan my book to sell — you’re a thief.


It may not be just the joint replacements. After they were both widowed, my mother-in-law used to travel with her best friend Vicky (who died about a year ago). I don’t think Vicky had any joint replacements. However, after Vicky’s husband died she took the insurance money and went on some nice, safe package tours, but some of them to exotic places like the Middle East and India. Otherwise, she and my mother-in-law had always led very similar wives—conservative housewives living in the same neighborhood in Berkeley for many years. Both in their 80s, by the post 9/11 period I am talking about. My mother-in-law was blown away by seeing Vicky always get the third degree at airports while my mother-in-law did not. My theory is my mother-in-law had never been outside the US, whereas Vicky’s senior citizen tours had given her a “dangerous” profile.

Just another bit of anecdote—I have a prosthetic leg and have gotten a patdown each time I fly my whole (33-year) life. Another day at the office for me, although I respect the position of those for whom it is not.

My experience, on the contrary, has been that the TSA doesn’t spend enough time or attention on my leg. I wish they’d put it through the X-ray. Usually I just get swabbed for explosive dust, have my bag checked, and that’s it.

For a couple of years, I wore a Jewish-style headscarf (not a hijab, but it did get a second look in the Midwest), and didn’t notice any increased scrutiny, although I looked more Mennonite than Muslim, for sure.

Just for info, the same issue as seen from the other side of the Atlantic: European Parliament 06/07/2011 Press Release, ‘Airport body scanners: MEPs demand strict safeguards’.

Headnote: ‘Body scanners should be allowed at EU airports only if the health, dignity and privacy of passengers are protected, says the European Parliament in a resolution’.

I found this interesting: ‘To protect human dignity, privacy and intimacy, “only stick figures should be used” and “no body images may be produced”, stress MEPs.’