(Originally posted in the Stratford Star and Fairfield Sun newspapers on January 26, 2012, in my “Walsh’s Wonderings” column.)
I heard it while taking my shoes off in the airport security checkpoint: “We’re in the backscatter line—we should refuse to let ‘em search us!” It was the same drunken voice that had been complaining about SOPA, marijuana laws, and American foreign policy for the last twenty minutes as I stood behind him in the interminable lines of Orlando International. It’s hard to take someone seriously when he’s wearing a white Mickey Mouse sweatshirt and smells of onions and stale Budweiser. It was all I could do not to ask him to set down his Red Bull long enough to read the many signs we’d passed stating that backscatter imaging was, in fact, optional.
Don’t get me wrong: I get as worried as the next guy when it seems the government wants to infringe on my rights (see SOPA—the Stop Online Piracy Act), but I don’t understand the furor over these scanners. In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that I could care less about things like facts or justice or even human decency if I get to spend less time at the airport. I’ve had root canals that were more pleasant than my time at LaGuardia. If these things get me through security faster, then do that voodoo that you do so well.
While not yet as advanced as the X-ray tube in the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger film Total Recall, the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) has installed these body-imaging machines at airports across the country. They scan passengers and create images of each body (without clothing) for a TSA agent seated in a separate area. It’s supposed to identify hidden metals, chemicals, or explosive materials, but it mostly seems to identify nipple rings or forgotten sets of car keys.
Many are concerned about the radiation and accompanying cancer risk these scanners represent, but the TSA claims it’s less than a typical cell phone transmission. They go on to explain, more distressingly, that backscatter technology produces less radiation than two minutes of actual flight time on an airplane. Someone should let them know that’s not exactly reassuring. Instead, they should tout the Food and Drug Administration’s finding that the potassium ingested from eating one banana produces the same radiation dose as these scanners. Someone needs to warn Curious George, not frequent fliers.
While we can still choose the old metal detector and a mandatory patdown, I’ll gladly put up with a little extra radiation if it means I can avoid that awkward groping. After I’d forgotten I was wearing suspenders last week, I was asked to wait in a holding pen for someone to feel me up. The sight of another man, without a medical degree, snapping on rubber gloves and telling me how he was about to touch my privates is reason enough to opt out. “I’ll only go over your sensitive areas with the back of my hands,” he said, as if that really made a difference. I’d already had to take off my jacket, my shoes, my watch, and my wedding ring in addition to removing my cell phone, keys, laptop computer, and any change I had in my pockets. What made me think they’d let me keep my dignity?
Still, it was inevitable that the thing that makes backscatter scanning so effective, seeing through our clothes, would also make it so controversial. Many privacy groups are outraged at the thought of strangers viewing what is essentially a crude charcoal drawing of blurry naked people holding their arms up. Despite the fact that these images are about as titillating as an Oscar statue, the TSA has had to install additional software that further obscures human features. A company called Rocky Flats even created radiation-shielding underwear (appropriately adorned with a fig leaf) to keep the prying eyes of the TSA away from your shadowy nether regions.
In another nod to privacy concerns, the TSA has had to swear on a stack of Bibles that no backscatter images would be printed or scanned, ensuring Playboy will never get to publish those x-ray images of my mom when she flew up to visit last Christmas. Her hair was a mess, so it all worked out for the best. If they want to keep my images, however, I say have at it! Pin ‘em up on the wall, Photoshop me onto a unicorn, I could care less. Besides—and I hope this doesn’t sound conceited—I think there is a real need for more naked x-ray pictures of my body in this world.
Let’s face it: Americans are a target around the globe. Airport security is a necessary evil, so if checking my dental records or determining whether I’ve been circumcised will get my plane to leave the gate on time, then let’s just get this over with. In the meantime, I’ll hope that the lugnut in the lead-proof undies will still be waiting in the patdown line as I cram my overstuffed carry-on bag into the bin over his seat.