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The Airport Security Grope
PostPosted: Tue Nov 09, 2010 5:13 am Reply with quote
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Joined: 17 Oct 2004
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Location: Texas

The Airport Security Grope
Keep Your Hands Off my Equipment
By Kathy & George Lepp

As a working photographer and lecturer, I fly a lot. The escalating levels of airport security and luggage (read camera gear, not clothing!) restrictions became just another annoying aspect of air travel, a necessary trade-off for rapid access to remote destinations. Kathy and I developed a check-point routine that typically succeeded in getting ourselves and all that photography gear safely through screening and onto the plane, only a little crankier than when we started the day. But this week TSA tightened the screws a little more, and now they've gone too far.

I have metal in both of my knees, the result of too much tennis in my early years and many years of carrying a heavy backpack of photo equipment over uneven terrain. This means that every time I fly--usually several times a month--I get special attention from TSA at the many airports lacking body scanners, including the one in my city. As Kathy shepherds our stuff along the conveyor belt, I get pulled aside for special, hands-on attention from a TSA agent. In the past this meant that I'd be blessed by the magic wand and lightly patted down. Not my favorite massage, but tolerable. Sometimes my photo gear was also gathered up and swabbed with a pad and tested for residue. Kathy would watch, muttering under her breath about the abandonment of civil liberties in exchange for a false sense of security, but still, the interruption was typically brief and courteous.

Today, TSA crossed some boundaries that changed everything.

It started with a whole new orientation speech on what the TSA agent was going to do to me. Hell, I had memorized the old spiel and now they were changing it. All my gear was brought into the area to be swabbed and examined, and then the agent started to pat me down. No wand, just the hands...everywhere! Up the legs, into the groin (even a jab into the genitals) down and up both legs. Other travelers stopped to watch, some gasping in surprise. Kathy protested from outside the enclosure: "Tell him you’re married, and only your wife gets to touch you there.” He laughed, but pushed on. This was getting WAAAAAY too personal. The TSA agent placed his gloves into the magic spectra sniffer. Then they collected me, my photo gear and another TSA agent of higher rank and without explanation escorted me to a private room where they groped me again and swabbed everything again, decided that I'm not a terrorist after all, invited me to file a complaint, and let me go, with nearly an hour lost.

While I was in the room for “private screening,” Kathy and other travelers watched in embarrassment and horror as a sweet-faced, white-haired, old woman with an artificial hip and a long skirt (she had the calm and grace of a nun) was subjected to the same treatment from a female TSA agent, who warned her loudly in advance that she was going to touch “breasts” and “genitals.” When offered the “private screening” room, the lady hesitated. Everybody knows that when the government wants to take you into a private room at the airport, it’s not going to be good. So of course the woman chose to be violated and humiliated in public, with witnesses. And, with reference to Carlos Miller’s recent posts on this site about repression of photographers, Kathy hesitated to pull the little SX-1 IS camera out of her briefcase to capture some video of the scene, although our searches have not yet uncovered any clear regulation against photographing TSA personnel and airport security areas. Frankly, once the agents took me away, Kathy became afraid that any action on her part might escalate the events for me or others.

In the recent past, we’ve published a couple of articles about how to get your gear through security and onto planes in some of the most remote and dangerous areas of the world—and safely back again. Consider this little piece an update about how to manage your equipment—photographic and personal--right here in the good ol’ USA. On the positive side, fellow passengers watching TSA’s treatment of me and the nun-like woman can feel reassured that we were not found to be carrying explosives in the area of our artificial joints. On the negative side, we all need to be even more careful as we move through airport security not to draw unwelcome notice and delay from TSA personnel through sloppy preparation of our bags or bodies. I can’t even recommend that you clean your camera gear carefully before you travel, eliminating any dust and debris you might have picked up out in the field that might register somehow in the swab test, because the TSA agent told me that those tests are tripping false positives on nothing but clean clothes. Other writers have noted that the new aggressive TSA pat-down policy is meant to be so reprehensible that, when faced with a choice between the full-body back-scatter scanners that render an image of your nude body or a physical pat-down, everyone will choose the scanner as the lesser (or faster) invasion of privacy. I rarely begin my travel in big airports equipped with scanners, and I plan to keep my metal knees, so that’s really not an option for me.

Remember that recent U.S. president who famously said of terrorists, “They hate our freedom?” My most urgent suggestion to you and anyone you know who is subjected to this invasive and ineffective new policy is to file a formal complaint, every single time. The government needs to be reminded that we as citizens and residents of the United States have different expectations. Otherwise, by mutely allowing ourselves to be violated by agents of our own government, or by standing silently while fragile old women are literally assaulted in public, we are letting our freedoms go without a murmur.

~ If not us, who? If not now, when? ~
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The Airport Security Grope
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