Fear of Flying in Age of TSA Pat Downs

November 23, 2010

Originally posted at New American Media

By Andrew Lam

“Abandon all hope ye who enter here,” so goes the phrase inscribed on the gate of hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Replace “hope” with “rights” and that phrase seems oddly apropos for the entrance to all American airports these days.

Indeed, since 9/11 the dust from those destroyed Twin Towers in New York City continue to form a cloud of suspicion, blanketing the country. Nearly a decade has passed and Americans have grown used to being on the permanent lookout for terror. We have learned to report folks who wear garbs in certain ways, who behave a little differently on the plane. Even famous journalist Juan Williams admits on Fox television to being “nervous” and “worried” with those who “are in Muslim garb.”

That is, we’ve learned to live permanently with Code Yellow and Orange. It is perhaps why while some are complaining, a vast many more are complacent with the new full-body scanners at airports. People don’t want to be groped or scanned, but people are willing to go through the humiliating processes in the name of safety and security. In newspaper articles, many of those interviewed used terms like “trade-off” or “compromise” when talking about privacy versus safety. One in particular said he’s grown “immune to the procedures.” A few days ago a new CBS poll found that a whopping 81 percent of Americans say the full-body scanners should be used at airports

“The airport is no longer part of America,” said a friend who is a frequent flyer. “Mention the word bomb loud enough even in casual conversation and you are likely be reported.” Say “bomb” to the TSA agent and you might create a massive traffic jam.

In one case of tragicomedy, a passenger at Chicago O’Hare Airport en route to Turkey, was asked about a device that turned out to be a penis pump. It was unclear how he said it, as he was standing next to his mother, but the word pump was heard as “bomb” by a TSA agent and the man faced three years of prison. 

Another incident involved an Iraqi wearing a T-shirt with Arabic inscription. He was not allowed on the plane at John F. Kennedy Airport. What did the inscription mean in Arabic? It said, ironically, “We Will Not Be Silent.”

And if you want to create pandemonium at San Francisco International Airport, and turn Code Orange to Red, try wearing an image of Bin Laden on your chest. In a sense, one checks in not just one’s luggage, but also one’s tongue at airports.

Now, with groping and full body scans as the norm, one gives up one’s rights to privacy along with free speech. “Are TSA pat-downs and full-body scans unconstitutional?” asks the Christian Science Monitor

But this seems somehow a moot point. The First Amendment is already seriously compromised, so why not the Fourth? The Monitor quoted William Schroeder, a professor of law at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, on the constitutionality of scanners and the Fourth Amendment problem who said, “I don’t think that argument is going to carry the day, given that people have hidden bombs on their bodies in ways that cannot be found through less invasive searches… you’ve consented. You don’t have to fly – that’s your choice.”

But even if you don’t fly you could find that the whole country is becoming a kind of "mega-airport," where you watch your language, your neighbor's briefcase and your neighbor -- and your neighbor does the same – all the while Uncle Sam’s electronic eye watches everyone? What if in the name of security, we are willing to give up more rights, not at the airport but everywhere else?

I have learned to accept the nature of the airport, but I think it is only tolerable as long as we know it will not last, that we are passengers to some hopeful and brighter destination. What I fear most is that the phrase “Abandon All Rights Ye Who Enter Here” may no longer be inscribed on the entrance, but that it is also etched above the exit sign.

Andrew Lam is the author of East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres.