Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Your Junk is Fair Game; Mine is Sacred

I remember when “Don’t touch my junk!” was a normal, wholesome part of an argument between siblings over whose toys belonged to whom. Now, as with “thong,” and “dope,” and “the bomb,” the meaning of “junk” has been hijacked by a generation touchier and less gentile than any before it.

You probably saw the news blurb this week in which a sensitive, or not so sensitive, young software engineer, John Tyner, refused the newest airport security clearance invention, the electronic full body scan. He then went on to refuse the more personal version, the full body pat down, saying he’d have the Transportation Safety Administration employee arrested if that employee made contact with Mr. Tyner’s “junk.”

Not permitted to board his flight, soon Mr. Tyner was escorted out of the San Diego airport and put in line for civil charges and fines up to $10,000. Seems once you start the security clearance process, you must complete it, one way or the other.

We are all now faced with a new reality that seems unlikely to go away, even in the face of threatened lawsuits and loosely organized “opt out” protests. Someone somewhere, perhaps the Campaign for Liberty, is encouraging travelers to opt out of the electronic scanner security check during Thanksgiving week travel. The idea being to demonstrate their protest against the revealing scan, choosing the pat down instead, and slowing the security check process for themselves and everyone else headed for cranberries and pumpkin pie.

I don’t think it’s going to work, because while the act of looking under our clothing for an instant is invasive and unnerving, my money says more folks will still choose this touch-free and therefore oddly impersonal search over the extremely personal alternative, a full body “pat down.” From all descriptors and videos available, the “pat down” might more appropriately be named a full body “feel up.”

My husband and I had the electronic treatment recently at Tulsa International Airport. The process encompassed an awkward moment pausing for the camera as it were, hands over head, a futile wish that I’d lost the weight already, and a minor wash of relief as we reclaimed our possessions, slipped into our shoes, cleared the area, and headed to our flight. I resisted the urge to look back over my shoulder.

I’m glad to know the person operating the machine and the one who sees the image are nowhere near each other. Also, the one looking at the screen cannot see the person screened, only her whole life reduced to a glimpse of what might be a Safeway chicken strung up by the wings. I’m glad to know they don’t store the images---not enough room in the freezer, I guess

If we engage our intellect, there’s no denying these machines add another layer of safety to airline travel. These new full body scanners can detect objects made from a range of materials concealed underneath travelers’ clothes, including liquid and plastic explosives. The old metal detectors can’t do that. The “underwear bomber” got through the metal detectors. He wouldn’t have cleared the new scanners or the alternative same-sex, person-to-person hands-on search.

In our experience in Tulsa, I felt confident the process was professional. Still, software exists that does not produce a real body image, but only a stick figure. Let’s do that. I expect even John Tyner would not object to a stick figure on the screen representing his naked self. If the TSA can get the same critical information without exposing all my reasons for basic black and vertical stripes, why not do it that way? Have a heart.

And have a brain. Some of the scanners use x-rays and others use millimeter wave technology (the electromagnetic waves that power cell phones and microwave ovens). So use the safer electromagnetic waves. Software exists to ensure that images are not copied or retrieved; that unauthorized access is prevented; and that any image analyzed by a human reviewer is kept 100% anonymous. Do all that. In every airport, in every security check.

And before you rest, find a way to deal with infants and small children and our grandmas and grandpas without humiliating them.

We all want to be safe and safer when we fly. For this, we have given up, and will give up even more of our comfort to get it. But you gotta respect our junk.