I got the porno scanner and the grope down both in one day

Beth and I went to South Padre Island for Thanksgiving this year, and I got subjected to not one – but both – of the controversial new security protocols.  I got the “porno scanner” and then got the “grope down” both while passing through the same security checkpoint.  Here’s my story.

I’m writing this at the end of Thanksgiving Weekend 2010.  One of the big topics in the news and on people’s minds right now is a new security program that the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) recently implemented.  The primary “safeguard” is a new set of scanners called “Advanced Imaging Technology”.  There’s a bit of an uproar right now because the radiation from the scanners may be unsafe, and also because the pictures they take of what you look like under your clothes are quite realistic.  The backup plan for someone who “opts out” of the new scanner is what they’re calling an “enhanced pat down” which entails a TSA agent touching the traveler in a rather intimate way (which is why many call it the “grope down” – I guarantee if I touched a stranger that same way, I’d be arrested for sexual assault).

Well, I got both of these, and learned first-hand about the process.  For some reason, the special scanner (occasionally called the “porno scanner” since it essentially makes your clothing invisible to the guy reviewing the photos) was not in use when we flew from Denver to Texas.  It was turned off, and had a big orange cone inside where the people would go.  So they were just using the old fashioned metal detector.  But on the way back, the airport in Harlingen had a working porno scanner, so that was my first direct exposure.

As we were passing through security at Harlingen, I did the usual stuff air travelers have been doing since the increased paranoia that started with the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  I took my shoes off, took my coat off, took my belt off, took my laptop out of its bag, etc.  While my stuff went on the conveyor through the x-ray machine, I stepped into the scanner.  There are marks on the floor to show you where to put your feet, and then you’re supposed to stand there with your hands up in a submission pose (like “don’t tase me, bro”) while they scan you.  A few seconds later, they said I can continue, and so I stepped out of the booth.

Then a TSA agent (a male) came to talk to me.  He asked if I was wearing a necklace or something around my neck.  I wasn’t, and showed him.  Then he told me he was going to pat me down around the buttocks.  He made a big point to emphasize that he would be using only the backs of his hands – not the palms. I guess you can’t really grope someone with the backs of your hands.  Again, I stood with the feet on the special footprint markers on the floor.  He said to put my arms straight out at my sides.  Then he started to pat me down, and quickly came to my wallet.  He asked me to take the wallet out and hold it in my hand with my ticket at arm’s length.

He patted around my sides, on both butt cheeks, and then between my legs.  When I say he patted between my legs, it wasn’t like he put his hands right on my junk.  Instead, he put each hand on an inner thigh, and then slid them up with medium force until they ran into my scrotum.  And then, like that, it was over.

He told me that next time I should take my wallet out of my pocket and send it through the conveyor belt with the rest of my stuff.  When it’s in your pocket, he said, it stops the scanner from being able to see through to your butt cheek, and that triggers a pat down.

The whole time, the guy was nice about it, helpful, and professional.  He was a middle-aged white male, and he was pretty laid back considering he pats nervous strangers’ scrotums all day for a living.  Thinking back on the situation, I remember feeling pretty dehumanized, like a cog in a machine.  But I’ve felt that way about airport security for the past decade.  I also felt that I had absolutely no control of the situation.  Nobody ever asked anything like, “Would you like us to do this in a private room?” or “Do you have any questions?”  Everything they said were very matter-of-fact commands: “Now I’m going to do this, and now you must do that.”

So that’s how my first experience went with both the porno scanner and the enhanced pat down.  And remember the question about the necklace?  I later figured out what must have triggered that comment.  The short sleeved shirt I was wearing had metal snaps, and the very top ones were unbuttoned (or unsnapped, more correctly).  So looking in the mirror, I realized that meant there would have been two halves of the top snap on either side of the next lower snap.  On the porno scanner, I guess that could look like a necklace.

My advice: don’t leave your wallet in your pants pocket when you pass through the porno scanner and don’t wear a shirt with metal snaps.  Or, alternatively, avoid air travel in the USA.

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