My TSA pat-down in Medford, Oregon
As a frequent flyer, I am used to an occasional pat down after ‘failing’ the body scan. Several times I have had my right thigh patted down because there was some indication that it should be.
Now I am quite fond of my right thigh, but I can tell you it is a perfectly normal thigh – no staples or pins, not even a scar. Yet for some reason that innocent thigh lights up our highest tech equipment. I do have a couple of pieces of metal in me (some screws in my neck and a few wires in my chest), but my thigh is pure flesh and bone and blood. Go figure.
I flew last weekend to and from Medford, Ore. from Florence, Italy. Thus, I had multiple scans both ways. On the way to Oregon, I was scanned in Florence and in Dulles airport near Washington, DC. I passed Body Scan 101 with flying colors! Because I did not want to bring any luggage with me for a three-day stay and because I had previously shipped a box of clothes from Geneseo to Oregon, I flew both directions wearing exactly the same clothes both ways. (Note to mom in case you are paying attention from beyond the clouds: I apologize for wearing the same underwear!)
When I prepared to go through security in Medford, I discovered that it was only open at certain times. So I waited for about 15 minutes. Medford is quite a small airport. For example, its tiny shop (singular) did not sell the New York Times although I had seen it in a diner earlier in the morning.
When the opening occurred, I discovered there was one body scanner and two lines for bags and shoes. I counted 11 uniformed TSA agents; only God knows how many others were lurking in the shadows or laboring in their offices.
I meticulously placed every item from my shirt and pants pockets in a jacket that I removed, along of course with my footwear. I was ready to pass Body Scan 102 magna cum laude.
An earnest young TSA agent told me that there were alarms in my scan and that I would be detained for further screening. This happens once in a while, and I assumed it my damned risky right thigh again. But no!
With great detail, a second TSA agent explained he was going to pat down my entire body (he did mean entire!). He explained that when he got to my groin and buttocks, he would use the back of his hand. Well, that is a comfort. This was done in public. I was being patted down along with a woman who was probably a few years older than me.
Okay, I thought, let’s just get this over with.
Well, I set off more alarms I was told, although they were not electronic because I was hand patted and not wanded. I did not ask what those alarms were because I knew the TSA guy couldn’t tell me for security reasons. So, I now had to enter a room to have a more intimate pat down. I had a new patter, although patter number 1 was there to witness this new search.
Patter No. 2 explained to me that the difference between this and the previous pat down is that he would use the front of his hand in the areas of buttocks and genitals. And people say flying is no longer fun!
I suppose that he groped about as gently as anyone could grope, but a grope it was. He was nice, and I had a witness. I guess I take some comfort from these two facts. Of course, they found nothing — well, nothing that involved a security risk!
I assumed that I was free to go. But, not yet. They decided my hand luggage needed special tests too. First, they rummaged through my medicine and books and a hat. Then they swabbed things to make sure I hadn’t been making bombs while reading with my hat on. And, I am happy to report, I passed this test too and really was free to go.
So what is the lesson to be drawn from all of this? First, I suppose, is you should avoid the Medford airport and its zealous gang of terror stoppers. However, that is not a terribly useful lesson for people living in Livingston because your chance of flying there is about the same as catching dengue fever while hiking in Ossian.
My first serious thought is that if the body scanners keep detecting things that are not there (I swear this on my right thigh), then is it also often guilty of not seeing something that is there? I don’t know the answer, but I am sure that these machines have limited usefulness.
Second, I wonder about how well the TSA folks are trained. I really cannot imagine what patter number 1 felt or thought he felt that led to the call to patter number 2 (aka the hands man). And why couldn’t he tell me what was causing pat down number 2 or ask me specifically about what he thought he detected? By the way, I was never asked if my body contained surgically implanted metal.
I don’t believe that I get a free pass because I am white and old. I shiver when I think about young men named Muhammad going through security. But what happened to me cannot be a very good use of technology and human resources.
I wonder how many of those 11 TSA agents I saw are there to grope people like me and the woman next to me (I don’t know if she got ‘sent inside’).
I think it is important to have the public’s trust and support for security searches. But two pat downs and a chemical and physical search of my briefcase do not lead to public support. The more cynical the public is about security matters, the less safe we all are. Surely we can do better than this.
And all this was a prelude to the flight attendant explaining in great detail how to fasten and unfasten a seat belt!