Archive for November, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, while trying to understand why body scanners are ineffectual, I found this great clip. Trouble is, it’s in German. Now, I could fix this, because I’ve done a fair amount of professional translating, German to English. But more trouble ahead: We were heading into final exams, and I know how much time it would take to insert the subtitles, having done it once before. I figured I might tackle it after I finished grading, even though the main expert’s Bavarian accent is atrocious.

Now that my grades are in, I found the same clip via Clarissa’s Blog – this time with English subtitles. They contain more infelicities than if a pro had done the job, but the translation is perfectly serviceable. (When they say “plaster,” they mean “band-aid,” in American English.) I’m pretty confident the translation isn’t Clarissa’s, but we owe a debt of thanks to this person (I suspect a native German speaker) who took the time to do a conscientious job.

In any event, you will understand more than enough to be alarmed.

This, folks, is why we could double our national debt investing in these scanners and not be appreciably safer.

(Go here if you cannot see the clip.)

If any of my chemist readers is itching to pen a guest post on thermite, I will gladly publish it. (I know there’s at least one of you out there!)

The scanners are, of course, only part of the problem. Another loophole could allow a bad guy to sneak through 24 ounces of Evildoer’s Goo (thermite specifically? I dunno).  Jeff Goldberg recounts this three-way rendezvous between himself, security über-guru Bruce Schneier, and a TSO in Minnepoo:

We took our shoes off and placed our laptops in bins. Schneier took from his bag a 12-ounce container labeled “saline solution.”

“It’s allowed,” he said. Medical supplies, such as saline solution for contact-lens cleaning, don’t fall under the TSA’s three-ounce rule.

“What’s allowed?” I asked. “Saline solution, or bottles labeled saline solution?”

“Bottles labeled saline solution. They won’t check what’s in it, trust me.”

They did not check. As we gathered our belongings, Schneier held up the bottle and said to the nearest security officer, “This is okay, right?” “Yep,” the officer said. “Just have to put it in the tray.”

“Maybe if you lit it on fire, he’d pay attention,” I said, risking arrest for making a joke at airport security. (Later, Schneier would carry two bottles labeled saline solution—24 ounces in total—through security. An officer asked him why he needed two bottles. “Two eyes,” he said. He was allowed to keep the bottles.)

(Read the rest here; it’s hysterical, precious, and horrifying, all at once.)

See? If it says saline, it must be saline! And not thermite!

Wherever the new scanners are coming online, they actually intensify an existing threat: that of a bomb aimed at passengers being shepherded toward the security checkpoint. Even if only 20% of flyers are directed to the scanners, without any opt-outs or false alarms – well, that’s enough to slow the lines noticeably. In busy airports, the waiting times will balloon, as will the crowds, once the new scanners become more routinely used. They’re simply slower than the old magnetometer.

Schneier makes this point in the Goldberg piece just cited: we’re creating sitting ducks. In the Thanksgiving edition of the New York Times, Roger Cohen channels Osama bin Laden in a busy U.S. airport and observes:

bin Laden might also wonder at just how stupid it is to assemble huge crowds at the Transportation Security Administration’s airport checkpoints, as if hundreds of people on planes were the only hundreds of people who make plausible targets for terrorists.

Feeling safer yet?

So far Germany, at least, isn’t squandering its money on naked body scanners. But then, its watchdog media (ZDF is a publicly supported TV network) are actually doing their job right.

And really … if the intent of the grope-down was to save us from the underpants bomber, why weren’t “enhanced patdowns” implemented way back in early January 2010, when our memory of him (and our gullibility) had just hit another local maximum? After all, that’s when Chertoff traversed the airwaves to sing the praises of Rapiscan technology. “Enhanced patdowns” are a better bet than the scanner for actually catching the next underpants bombers (though I’m positive there won’t be a clone; next up will be the booty-bomb.)

Of course, I’m not defending the grope-downs. Not at all! I’m just pointing out that the timing of their introduction had nothing to do with “homeland security,” as it has been sold to us. It had everything to do with the first major rollout of the naked body scanners, however. They were a punitive means of guaranteeing compliance and organizational efficiency from the flying herds of American sheeple. Otherwise, we would have gotten the grope back in January, for sure.

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PB&J Caturday

This has got to be my stupidest Caturday entry in a long time – probably ever. I thought this clip might be dredging the deepest, dumbest depths of YouTube, but then I saw the video of the same kitteh dancing to Britney Spears. It gets even worse, folks.

YouTube also offers kittehs singing that old Christian Sunday School tune, “I’ve Got the Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy down in My Heart.” That one’s unbearable, even for my kids.

But my seven-year-old Tiger adores this PB&J kitteh.

I do not. Especially after five viewings. Watch at your own risk.

(If you can’t see the video, click here, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

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Best Thanksgiving song ever? “Alice’s Restaurant.” Hands down.

(Then again, I can’t think of another T-day song except for “Over the River and through the Woods,” which was written by another kick-ass American dissident, Lydia Maria Child, who fought for the rights of slaves, Indians, and women. Her song wasn’t political – unless I’m missing a subtext – but I do want to know more about her.)

If you don’t know “Alice’s Restaurant” – or if you haven’t listened in a while – here’s Arlo Guthrie playing it a few years ago, with scenes from the “Alice’s Restaurant” movie interspersed. (The original lyrics are here, but Arlo updated and edited them a bit for this performance.)

(Click here if you can’t view the clip.)

Astonishingly, my very Republican, anti-hippie, draft-dodger-deprecating dad loved this song. He used to play it on the piano all the time when I was a little kid in the early 1970s. My sibs and I would sing along and dance. Only later did I read all the spoken-part lyrics and wonder: what’s a father-raper? By then I was maybe twelve and able to plunk the tune out myself on the piano. I was also abundantly old to realize my dad was not a good person to ask.

“Alice’s Restaurant” has been running through my head the past week or so, and it’s not just in honor of Thanksgiving. I’m thinking it’s time for a new edit of its final lyrics (with apologies to Arlo):

And the only reason I’m singing you this song now is cause you may know somebody in a similar situation, or you may be in a similar situation, or maybe you’re just tryin’ to hop a plane without gettin’ all irradiated and nekkid-scanned. So if you find yourself inspected, detected, infected, neglected and seee-lected for a backscatter scanner,  just sing, “Officer, You can get anything you want, at Alice’s restaurant.” And opt out. You know, if one person, just one person does it they may think he’s really sick and they won’t grope him. And if two people, two people do it, in harmony, they may think they’re batshit and they won’t grope either of them. And three people do it, three, can you imagine, three people walking in singin’ a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out. They may think it’s an organization. And can you, can you imagine fifty people a day, I said fifty people a day walking in singin’ a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out. And friends, they may think it’s a movement.

Maybe it’s not a movement. Maybe it’s just one guy who convinces a couple of other people to opt out.

Or maybe you don’t care about opting out in the airport. Maybe you’re okay with people viewing your, ahem, junk. (Geez, I hate that term as much as I hate “vajayjay!” Now we’re stuck with it!)

Isn’t there something in your life, though, that just has to stop? Isn’t there some occasion that demands you sing a bar of “Alice” and just opt out? (And no, I don’t mean an irritating relative at your Thanksgiving table … though I just learned that my sister’s husband’s father’s third wife conducts training (??!!WTF??!!) for the TSA, so perhaps it’s just as well I missed out on this years family gathering in California, even though I’m aching to be there.)

If you’re ready to sing a bar of “Alice” – well, I’ll join in on the harmony. And I might – just might – sing it solo at the Columbus airport a week from today.

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Just in time for the holiday season, American capitalist ingenuity offers a stylish solution for the traveler who values privacy and/or modesty. Behold:

Jeff Buske of Rocky Flats Gear is selling protective undies. (Via the New York Daily News.) This is the cute low-rise model, shown in always-fashionable Threat Level Orange. The figleaves are made of a powder-coated metal intended to block backscatter x-rays and terahertz waves, along with background alpha and beta radiation. Less sexy designs feature a larger panty and broader figleaf to shield the ovaries. Bras and bra inserts are available too, as are briefs to protect the dudez’ junk. Some products (not these undies) are evocatively priced at $9.11.

I’m a bit creeped out by the other basic design for women, which features hands that are supposed to protect but frankly look like they’re groping. Personally, I would go with the cute figleaves. Check out the five-pack of the low-rise panty, featuring every color on the DHS threat level rainbow!

I think Stephen Colbert seriously needs to do a segment on these undies. Maybe they protect against bears, too?

I have no idea what would happen if you wore one of these through a naked-body scanner. You’d probably get the grope of your lifetime. Still, I marvel at American inventiveness – yet another reason to give thanks!

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You probably caught the story a couple of weeks ago about Dubya seeing the remains of his mothers’ miscarriage in a jar. As New York Magazine reported:

After Barbara Bush suffered a devastating miscarriage, “she said to her teenage kid, ‘Here’s the fetus,'” [George W.] Bush told [interviewer Matt] Lauer, “gesturing as if he were holding the jar.” According to the Post, Bush says he got special permission from his mom to recount the private incident in print. Lauer reads an excerpt from the memoir where Bush, who had to drive his mother to the hospital, wrote, “I never expected to see the remains of the fetus, which she had saved in a jar to bring to the hospital.” In the interview, he tells Lauer, “There’s no question that affected me, a philosophy that we should respect life,” adding that, “[The anecdote] was really to show how my mom and I developed a relationship.”

As Knitting Clio explains, it’s actually not surprising that Bush mère and père were pro-choice, like other Republicans of their day. Dubya thus couldn’t claim a lifelong affinity for the anti-choicers. Given his fondness for conversion stories (e.g., the tale of how he was saved from alcoholism), it makes perfect sense that Dubya would present a dramatic tale to explain his departure from the family’s pro-choice legacy. Bush Jr. has denied that it was meant as a political morality tale, but it’s been received as one anyway.

What I originally found astonishing about the story was Barbara Bush’s apparent presence of mind. How many of us, in the midst of a miscarriage, would think to catch the fetal remains and put them in a jar? Grisly as it may sound, the remains might have been medically useful, indicating whether the miscarriage was complete, though I imagine her doctor performed a D&C regardless. I thought this was mildly strange but also strangely admirable.

Showing the remains to her son was a bit odder. Dubya offering this story to illustrate an evolving relationship? Well, that’s a whole ‘nother dimension of weird. Once upon a time, my mom showed me her gallstones in a jar. (Said jar resided in her medicine chest for at least decade, and might still be there.) Even accounting for the difference between gallstones and a miscarried fetus, I wouldn’t consider my mother sharing her gallstones a key event in our relationship. Frankly, I thought Dubya would’ve been well advised to just let the story stand as his anti-abortion conversion tale – full stop.

Today, the fetus-in-a-jar story took a turn for the outright bizarre. Here’s Politico’s transcript of Larry King interviewing Barbara Bush (via Shakesville):

KING: You also disclose, Barbara — George discloses something very personal about you, which he says you gave him special permission to write about. He wrote that when you once had a miscarriage, you showed him the fetus in the jar.

BARBARA BUSH: No, really, the truth is …

KING: We touched on it before. But we didn’t elaborate.

BARBARA BUSH: I didn’t put it in the jar.

KING: What?

BARBARA BUSH: It’s not in the library. No …

KING: I know.

BARBARA BUSH: George — Paula put it in the jar. And I was shocked when she gave it to him to. But, you know, memories dim a little bit.

“Paula” is evidently their long-time housekeeper. Why, for heaven’s sake, would Dubya tell the story differently after checking with his mother before publishing it? Barbara says memories dim, but why present this as the truth if they have two different recollections? Methinks her son is just in the habit of truthiness.

But the oddest thing of all is that Barbara Bush’s housekeeper would be handling a miscarried fetus. This raises all sorts of unsavory questions, such as where the fetus resided before it was placed in the jar. Did Paula handle the fetus on her own initiative, or did Barbara ask her to package it? And why would Paula give the fetus to Dubya?

Still left unanswered: the burning question of where that jar is now. I’d originally thought it went to the hospital with Dubya and Barbara – end of story. Now, all we know is “it’s not in the library.” Perhaps in the conservatory? With Professor Plum and a candlestick?

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I’ve been so serious these past two weeks, it’s time to take a brief break to gloat. As my long-time readers know, neither of those modes is my usual. I’m not typically a single-minded terrier, and I try not to be too smug. But sometimes The Kitty just has to pounce on an injustice when it’s fresh and new and potentially reversible. The TSA debacle pushed all of my buttons: Possible harm to my kids? Check. Sexualized violence? Check. Creating novel forms of bodily experience? Ugh – check. Trampling the rule of law? Checkmate!

So let this be my “Moment of Smug,” to paraphrase Colbert. Over the past few days, my post debunking the right-wing meme of TSA favoritism toward Muslim women drew thousands of hits – with this result:

In case you can’t quite read the graphic – and even if you can (because hey, I’m gloating!) – my post, “Not Exempt,” is the first listed on Google after the breaking news links. The first. Number one. Nummer eins. Woo hoo!

Starting tomorrow, instead of all-TSA all-the-time, I’ll be going back to a broader mix of posts. But for a few sweet moments, I’m going to savor my ascendancy over Fox News. Yes, I realize my post floated to the top of Google mainly because 100,000 other posts all regurgitated the same right-wing distortion, while I offered a fresh view. In spite of this, I know many readers merely sought to confirm their wingnutty views. (From my comment spam folder: a commenter with the clever handle “fuck you” tells me to “get fucked.”)

Never mind the haters. I’m still tickled that my information rose above the scum of Islamophobic disinformation. I guess I assumed disinformation always wins because it never fights fair. Some of us feel an inconvenient obligation to the truth, which hobbles you in the fight. It’s lovely to see that sometimes the truth does rise to the top. I’m happier yet that my post might have planted a few seeds of awareness in the minds of people who were sincerely questioning.

Thanks to my readers – old and new – for hanging with me! I’m not dropping the TSA story. You can expect updates when I feel moved to provide them, but they’ll be jumbled in with my usual mishmash of sex, feminism, parenting, kittehs, and any stuff that catches my fancy or pisses me off. For those playing along at home, I’ve put together a list of my TSA posts to date:

Also, if you’re not reading Cogitamus, do pop over there. Lisa Simeone has been covering the abuses of the security state in depth for years. Her co-bloggers are excellent too – among them litbrit, who like me wants Sarah Palin to explain her “wild ride.”

It remains to be seen if the TSA will really be forced to revamp their policies. So far, they seem terrified of losing face. In the meantime, though:

(Smug kitteh from ICHC?)

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Am I the only person struck by the Orwellian weirdness of calling a grope-down an “enhanced” pat-down? The term seems to originate with the TSA. Their pusillanimous shill, “Blogger Bob” at the official TSA blog, ran a post titled “Enhanced Pat-downs” back on August 27. The language is theirs. (Weirdly but typically, in that post Bob never defined what the “enhancements” would entail. Now we know.)

Has anyone else made the connection between “enhanced” pat-downs and “enhanced” interrogation techniques? I haven’t seen anything on the terminological connection, neither in the mainstream media nor the blogs I follow. My husband and I each independently saw a connection. What do you think?

While chipping away at different facets of the TSA debacle, I’ve been haunted by bigger questions – ones much harder to answer than how safe the scanners are or whether the grope-downs constitute “sexual assault.” These are existential questions for the United States, for democracy, for our basic decency and humanity: How did we come to this pass? How is it possible for my country to commit acts that in any other context would be deemed sexual assault? How can Americans allow our government to commit them in our name?

We – the American people – haven’t just become more fearful since 9/11. We’ve become more callous, too. From Afghanistan to Guantanamo, we have tolerated torture that promises to “keep us safe.” No wonder a silent majority appears prepared to tolerate virtual strip-searches and government-sponsored groping. As Adam Serwer argues eloquently at TAPPED, many of those livid at the TSA abuses supported the PATRIOT Act and every subsequent grotesquerie aimed at Muslims and foreigners. These folks are only angry now that we’re feeling the reach – nay, the grab – of the security state on our own flesh.

I have to wonder if Abu Ghraib, in particular, lowered the bar for sexual abuse. The differences between the sexualized torment inflicted on prisoners at Abu Ghraib and the new TSA procedures are important, of course. President Bush never publicly affirmed the Abu Ghraib abuses, while President Obama has publicly defended the TSA. The torment inflicted on the Abu Ghraib prisoners was considerably more severe, including the outright rape of children, according to Seymour Hersh, who first broke the scandal.

However, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Abu Ghraib coarsened us – that it put sexual abuse on the menu of techniques routinely employed by the security state. Sure, Lynndie England went to jail for her deeds, but her commanding general, Janis Karpinski, was merely relieved of her duties. Donald Rumsfeld, who Karpinski said authorized the abuses (and I believe her), lives the comfortable life of a retired war criminal. Rummie’s former boss is currently profiting handsomely from a partially-plagiarized memoir.

At the same time, it’s probably an oversimplification to say the new TSA policies are a direct descendant of Abu Ghraib. It seems equally likely that they sprang from the same source – a willingness to allow democracy, the rule of law, and basic human rights to be abrogated after 9/11.

The post-9/11 climate, in turn, has deeper roots. A couple of weeks ago, I attended a symposium on “Islamophobia” at my university. One speaker said that the hatreds that took hold after 9/11 violate America’s greatest values. Another speaker contended that our paranoid responses are very American indeed, reaching back to the xenophobia of the so-called Progressive Era and beyond.

They were both right.

The United States has a tradition of championing justice and equality, liberty and privacy. It also has a tradition of racism, inequality, xenophobia, and willingness to jettison the rule of law in wartime. Unfortunately the gap between the two traditions has often been a gulf between ideals (the first tradition) and practice (the second).

At that forum, we watched an ABC Primetime segment that tested Americans’ willingness to stand up for a Muslim woman being refused service in a shop:

(Click here if you can’t view the clip.)

If you tear up at the clip – well, I did too. And then I asked myself why civil courage should seem so exceptional and so deeply touching.

I’m beginning to think the public outcry over naked body scanners and grope-downs might just force a change at the TSA. Today, John Pistole finally admitted that the agency went too far in one case where a screener reached inside a woman’s underwear. As these stories multiply, the pressure on Pistole, Napolitano, and Obama will continue to mount.

Let’s say we win the struggle against TSA abuses. Let’s say they agree to keep their hands off our genitals and to reserve the naked-body scanners only for cases where there’s probable cause. What next? What would it take to dismantle the out-of-control security state that spies on its own citizens and kills and tortures brown people overseas, all in the name of freedom? Which tradition will we choose – that of liberty and justice for all, or safety at any price? As a nation, will we continue to be the six people who perpetuated abuse or the twenty-two who stood by silently? Or will we have the courage to become the thirteen who spoke up?

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It’s become a cottage industry, this business of coming up with new phrases to fit the acronym TSA. Read the two following stories and see if you can come up with a better title.

Story 1: Multiple breast cancer survivors have reported TSA harassment due to wearing a breast prosthesis. A Charlotte-based flight attendant, Cathy Bossi, underwent an “enhanced” patdown because as a survivor, she worried about radiation exposure from the naked scanners. MSNBC reports:

The TSA screener “put her full hand on my breast and said, ‘What is this?’ ” Bossi told the station. “And I said, ‘It’s my prosthesis because I’ve had breast cancer.’ And she said, ‘Well, you’ll need to show me that.’ “

Bossi said she removed the prosthetic from her bra. She did not take the name of the agent, she said, “because it was just so horrific of an experience, I couldn’t believe someone had done that to me. I’m a flight attendant. I was just trying to get to work.”

This is just one reason why exempting the pilots from screening solves nothing (apart from relieving the government from worrying about the pilots walking out on their jobs). (Bossi gives additional detail on her experience here.)

But there’s more. MSNBC continues:

Marlene McCarthy of Rhode Island said she went through the body scanner and was told by a TSA agent to step aside. In “full view of everyone,” McCarthy said in an e-mail, the agent “immediately put the back of her hand on my right side chest and I explained I wore a prosthesis.

“Then, she put her full hands … one on top and one on the bottom of my ‘breast’ and moved the prosthesis left, right, up, down and said ‘OK.’ I was so humiliated.

And the stories just go on: a woman with a pacemaker, another breast cancer survivor, a man who uses crutches, a woman whose hip replacement hardware trips all the red flags, now more than ever … and that’s just in this one brief MSNBC report.

Story 2: At Detroit’s airport, Thomas Sawyer, a retired special-ed teacher, was selected for secondary screening after his urostomy bag showed up on the naked scanner. A bladder-cancer survivor, he needs to wear this bag to collect urine, since he had to surgically trade in his bladder for more years of life. Here’s how MSNBC reports the rest of his experience:

Due to his medical condition, Sawyer asked to be screened in private. “One officer looked at another, rolled his eyes and said that they really didn’t have any place to take me,” said Sawyer. “After I said again that I’d like privacy, they took me to an office.”

Sawyer wears pants two sizes too large in order to accommodate the medical equipment he wears. He’d taken off his belt to go through the scanner and once in the office with security personnel, his pants fell down around his ankles. “I had to ask twice if it was OK to pull up my shorts,” said Sawyer, “And every time I tried to tell them about my medical condition, they said they didn’t need to know about that.”

Before starting the enhanced pat-down procedure, a security officer did tell him what they were going to do and how they were going to it, but Sawyer said it wasn’t until they asked him to remove his sweatshirt and saw his urostomy bag that they asked any questions about his medical condition.

“One agent watched as the other used his flat hand to go slowly down my chest. I tried to warn him that he would hit the bag and break the seal on my bag, but he ignored me. Sure enough, the seal was broken and urine started dribbling down my shirt and my leg and into my pants.”

The security officer finished the pat-down, tested the gloves for any trace of explosives and then, Sawyer said, “He told me I could go. They never apologized. They never offered to help. They acted like they hadn’t seen what happened. But I know they saw it because I had a wet mark.”

Humiliated, upset and wet, Sawyer said he had to walk through the airport soaked in urine, board his plane and wait until after takeoff before he could clean up.

(Read the whole story here.)

There are so many layers of horror in these stories, I hardly know where to begin.

Anyone who has survived the pain, indignity, and fear of cancer and its treatment deserves nothing but kindness and compassion. I know that first-hand, having seen my spouse and my sister suffer. The same is true for every other disease and disability. People suffer enough from nature’s ravages; why add human callousness to the mix?

Passengers deserve to be heard, not ignored, when they try to explain their medical situation. As far as I can see, the TSA response is repeatedly, hey, we’re just doing our job, so get out of our way. (Subtext: STFU.)

No one – regardless of their physical ability – deserves humiliation. The TSA may appear to be applying policies “consistently” by not exempting passengers with disability or medical conditions, but the ultimate effect is profoundly discriminatory. If you wear a prosthesis or an ostomy bag, your choice is to face humiliation – or remain grounded, regardless of how far away you live from loved ones. The ableist impact of the TSA procedures is yet another instance of ostensibly “same” treatment resulting in gross inequalities.

And how ’bout that vaunted TSA professionalism? There’s no private space available when Mr. Sawyer asks for it. The officer responds with an eye roll. Neither of the two agents have the basic human decency (never mind professionalism!) to apologize.

As for a “private” screening being a right? Mr. Sawyer had to fight for it. Ms. Bossi was given it. Ms. McCarthy never even had a chance to demand it; her humiliation occurred in full public view.

Mr. Sawyer’s experience wasn’t as clearly sexualized as that of the breast cancer survivors, but all of these people are being harmed by the confluence of the rampaging security state with ableism and contempt for bodily autonomy.

One other factor is in play, too: the obviously woeful training of TSA officers. Badtux explains just how perfunctory his own training was when he once began a similar government job. Badtux views the inconsistency of TSA grope-searches results largely from half-assed training. Obviously the erraticness becomes even more egregious as soon as TSA officer lay hands on non-normative bodies: children, gender-variant folks, and people with disabilities.

Be that as it may, the TSA is still in violation of its own policies. Here’s what its website says about “assistive devices and mobility aids”:

  • Security Officers will need to see and touch your prosthetic device, cast or support brace as part of the screening process.
  • Security Officers will not ask nor require you to remove your prosthetic device, cast, or support brace.
  • During the screening process, please do not remove or offer to remove your prosthetic device.
  • You have the option of requesting a private screening at any time during the screening of your prosthetic device, cast or support brace.
  • You have the right to refuse the offer of a private screening; however, you will need to allow the screening to be conducted publicly if you wish to proceed beyond the security checkpoint.

The TSA has clearly violated the second point. Also, re: point one, there’s a difference between touching the device (a breast prosthesis, say) and moving it around in a way that draws public attention to the fact that it is indeed a prosthesis. The TSA also violated the fourth point in these stories.

In the face of the TSA breaking its own rules and violating basic human rights, Obama says only this (again via MSNBC):

“I understand people’s frustrations, and what I’ve said to the TSA is that you have to constantly refine and measure whether what we’re doing is the only way to assure the American people’s safety. And you also have to think through are there other ways of doing it that are less intrusive,” Obama said.

“But at this point, TSA in consultation with counterterrorism experts have indicated to me that the procedures that they have been putting in place are the only ones right now that they consider to be effective against the kind of threat that we saw in the Christmas Day bombing.”

In other words: underpants bomber! underpants bomber!

Maybe it’s hard to imagine now, President Obama, but someday you too will likely live with a disability. This is not just an issue that affects a few unlucky elderly people. Many people living with disability are young or in their middle years. Disability is in all of our futures, unless we die young and violently. It will touch all of us, whether we’re now temporarily able-bodied, partially disabled, or living with disability 24/7.

There’s got to be a more compassionate course. How ’bout we start with some well-trained bomb-sniffing beagles, serious security for cargo, and real checks of employees working behind-the-scenes at airport? That might keep the TSA so busy, they’d have no time to mess with ostomy bags and prosthetic breasts.

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I didn’t know whether to laugh or cringe during this explanation of the new TSA policies:

(Go here if you can’t see the clip.)

It perfectly sums up the Homeland Security response:

Q: So why do I have to go through all of this?

A: 9/11.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

(But hey, what’s with all the questions? Don’t you know loyal Americans just do as they’re told? Have we gone soft since the heyday of that great American, Joe McCarthy?)

This snippet from Colbert includes some of those moments when Colbert’s parody is uncomfortably close to actual bigotry, and you wonder if the audience is laughing with or at homophobia. Ditto for Colbert’s use of “hermaphrodite,” which is exactly the term his character would use, but – ugh.

(Click here if you can’t see the clip.)

Kudos to Colbert for raising a question that’s been bugging me too: What genius came up with the name “Rapiscan”?

Dave Barry complains in this NPR interview about finding out from the TSA that he’s got a dire physical condition: a blurred groin. Less jokingly, when host Melissa Block repeats the TSA line about the grope searches not being punishment for folks who opt out, Barry replies:

Well, I would say whoever wrote that it’s not punitive was not having his or her groin fondled at the time.

Jessi at The Sexademic has some satirical ideas on how to protest the searches.

Badtux the Snarky Penguin offers some darkly accurate new slogans for the TSA.

And finally, Daniel Solove at the legal blog Concurring Opinions shows us the fun to be had with a TSA Playmobile kit!

Sadly, the TSA Playmo set is no longer sold in stores, so you’ll just have to check out the rest of Solove’s wickedly wonderful post.

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Who owns liberty? Republicans or Democrats? Tea Partiers or the ACLU?

Legislators in New Jersey this week came up with a novel response: All of the above. This video makes me want to stand up and cheer. Republicans and Democrats – and even an ACLU rep – all came together in opposing TSA abuses.

(Click here if you can’t view the clip.)

Privacy and liberty are basic American values. Nobody holds a monopoly on them. We all have a stake. We all have common ground here, irrespective of our other differences.

That’s why I’m dismayed when I see journalists, bloggers, and commenters pinning the TSA abuses on

You can see that the blaming is almost a Rorschach test for people’s pet fears and favorite enemies.

So far, I don’t see the left playing the blame game with quite such zeal as the right. This is partly because Bush is off whacking shrubs somewhere and is no longer a convenient target, while our guy is now in office. It’s also due to the left having been slow to discover this story, while the Ron Paul faction of the Republican Party has been all over it for weeks and months, to their credit. The left simply hasn’t made much of a snail trail yet.

Look, there’s oodles of blame to go around. In addition to this administration and the last, our congresscritters are not crowning themselves with glory. Unlike the legislators in New Jersey, they are mostly kowtowing to the new procedures. Despite Claire McGaskill’s incredibly tone-deaf characterization of the grope-search as “love pats,” craven capitulation to the security state is a bipartisan failing. And then there’s Joe Lieberman, who has earned himself a daily grope-search for eternity in whatever afterlife awaits him.

This is where the creeping path toward fascism must end. Let’s make common cause until the TSA buckles. While the TSA has caved to the pilots’ demands, we ordinary passengers are going to have to be a lot more persistent. (Unions do have their advantages, y’know!) We need to get along – right, left, and center – until this TSA debacle is history. Once this incursion on liberty has been beaten back, we can go back to our regularly scheduled spats.

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I’m deeply troubled by some of the memes surfacing in the right-wing discussion of the TSA invasion of privacy. The worst is the claim that Muslim women are exempt. That simply is not true.

What is the truth? Well, the Council on American-Islamic Relations has issued some recommendations for Muslim women:

  • If you are selected for secondary screening after you go through the metal detector and it does not go off, and “sss” is not written on your boarding pass, ask the TSA officer if the reason you are being selected is because of your head scarf.
  • In this situation, you may be asked to submit to a pat-down or to go through a full body scanner. If you are selected for the scanner, you may ask to go through a pat-down instead.
  • Before you are patted down, you should remind the TSA officer that they are only supposed to pat down the area in question, in this scenario, your head and neck. They SHOULD NOT subject you to a full-body or partial-body pat-down.
  • You may ask to be taken to a private room for the pat-down procedure.
  • Instead of the pat-down, you can always request to pat down your own scarf, including head and neck area, and have the officers perform a chemical swipe of your hands.

Note that these are recommendations for how Muslim women should respond! I have copied them verbatim. They are not phrased as policy demands on the TSA, and CAIR is most assuredly not a major Beltway player. The recommendations focus solely on how individual women can respond, and they’re almost painfully polite: “you may ask” and “you can always request.” Even Miss Manners would be more assertive! (In fact, Miss Manners has a keen sense of social justice. She would surely note that “a private room” is actually a right that already exists under TSA rules.)

And yet, the headlines at right-wing sites announce “CAIR: TSA Can’t Pat Down Muslim Women” (that’s Fox News, not the extreme fringe).

How is the TSA actually responding? Here’s how Janet Napolitano answered when a reporter asked whether Muslim women would be exempt:

(Click here if you can’t view the video.)

Napolitano’s key quote from the video:

Adjustments will be made where they need to be made. With respect to that particular issue [the sensitivities of Muslim women], I think there will be more to come.

That’s a far cry from announcing an exemption.

Meanwhile, during yesterday’s Senate Commerce Committee hearings, TSA chief John Pistole clearly stated that no one would be exempted from the new screening protocols on religious grounds.

SEN. JOHN ENSIGN (R-NEVADA): Are you going to, you know, allow certain groups to be exempted from that because of, you know, religious beliefs?

PISTOLE: Senator, we try to be sensitive to each individual and in groups that have particular sensitivities as to whether it’s head-wear or certain garb or sensitivities about being viewed or touched and everything. So we try to be sensitive to those issues. At the same time, the bottom line is we have to ensure that each person getting on each flight has been properly screened. And so we have options such as, if somebody does not want to go through the advanced imaging technology, it is optional. They would just do the walk- through metal detector and then–and have a pat-down that would identify any possible items.

They can request private screenings. So if they don’t want to be screened in public, they can go to a private area, have a witness with them.

And so we try to address those concerns in every way possible, recognizing, again, in the final analysis, everybody on that flight wants to be assured with the highest level of confidence that everybody else on that flight has been properly screened, and including me and you and everybody.

ENSIGN: I realize this is a difficult question for you, but–so are you going to make no exceptions, then?

PISTOLE: Everybody…


ENSIGN: No, no, I–let me–maybe not (inaudible) my question. If somebody is–a random screening. I just got randomly screened at the airport. For whatever reason, my number seems to come up quite often.

But if that, you know, happens and either the imaging, OK, was one of the options or, you know, the pat down–let’s just say I don’t–I don’t want either of them because of religious–because of religious reasons. What happens to me?

PISTOLE: So while I respect and we respect that person’s beliefs, that person’s not going to get on an airplane.

ENSIGN: OK. And there will be no exceptions because of religion.

(I trimmed this for length; see the uncut transcript here.)

Despite the fact that Ensign has trouble spitting out the question, Pistole’s response is clear: Regardless of one’s religious beliefs, no one gets to opt out of both the strip-search scanner and the grope-down.

The right-wing outcry over Muslim women even asking for religious sensitivity is ironic, given the way Muslim women are treated when flying. Consider this incident, which happened to a native-born American citizen before the new protocol was implemented:

Nadia Hassan, 40, a suburban Washington, D.C., real estate agent, says she was traveling from Dulles International Airport to California on Jan. 5 when she was ordered to remove herhijab before going through a metal detector. She refused and a security officer conducted a full-body search in view of other passengers, even though she had not set off the metal detector. She says another officer told her she had to go through the added security because of her scarf.

“To target women in head scarves blindly, it’s ignorance,” she says.

(Source: USA Today)

Of course, the TSA denies it does this (see the article just linked). The TSA denies pretty much everything. (And did you know they’re just trying to keep up safe?)

The new policies spread the humiliation Hassan endured to all Muslim women. CAIR reports:

CAIR offices have already received complaints, particularly from female travelers who wear hijab, about being subjected to the new pat-down procedure. …

One traveler wearing hijab, a 56-year-old Muslim flying out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, told CAIR the TSA screener patted-down her entire upper body, including, head, neck, chest, and hips, with the backs of her hands. The Muslim woman said she had “no idea” how invasive the procedure would be and would otherwise have opted for a private room or demanded to know why she was selected for secondary screening.

[NOTE: The woman had been referred to secondary screening even though the metal detector did not go off, a phenomenon reported frequently to CAIR by female Muslim travelers.]

Bear in mind, that Islam calls all believers to modesty, men as well as women. Not all Muslim women choose to wear hijab as expression of modesty and piety. However, even those women with bare heads still regard modesty as a virtue. The new procedures trample on all Muslims’ religious sensibilities, along with their basic human right to privacy.

Update 11/18/10, 4:30 p.m.: This should already be clear from my comment policy in the sidebar, but any comments hating on Muslims, women, or anyone else will not be permitted. Let’s keep it civil. Also, comments that are grossly ignorant of Islam won’t be approved, either, because they amount to anti-Islamic propaganda even if that’s not the author’s intent.

Update 11/22/10, 9:50 p.m.: If you liked this post, you might want to check out my other commentary on TSA violations of basic rights to privacy, dignity, and bodily autonomy.

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When the TSA is questioned on its procedures, its first go-to excuse is that they’re keeping us safe. If you press harder, a favorite second-line rationale is that they need to treat everyone the same – even toddlers and the elderly – because the alternative would be “racial profiling.”

Sure, the TSA may be treating everyone the same. That doesn’t mean they’re being treated equally, however. Some people are more vulnerable than others. I’ve already touched on the likelihood that a grope search would trigger a rape survivor’s trauma. Newsweek has a good in-depth analysis of this issue.

I’d argue that children are also vulnerable to being traumatized. Two nights ago, in response to an adult conversation that in retrospect I wish I’d postponed until after the kids were in bed, my eleven-year-old son, the Bear, said: “Do you remember when the security guy searched inside my waistband in Belgium? Are they going to do that to me again?” His eyes welled up. Granted, he cries easily – a trait he inherited from his mother – but he seemed deeply upset at the prospect of a replay.

Now, imagine a child who’s actually been sexually abused. How will she or he react to being groped, no matter how officially and “professionally?”

Today, TSA head John Pistole (is that a pistole in your pocket? … oh never mind) told an NPR interviewer that children twelve and under would be exempted from the enhanced pat-down:

We did not do frankly a very good job of communicating initially that there would be an exemption, if you will, from the thorough pat-down for children 12 and under.  That was under review when the policy came out, and so we have clarified that.  It does not apply to children 12 and under.

(You can hear the interview at NPR.)

Frankly, I don’t think that this exemption existed until today. Goldblog cites an incident about ten days ago where an eight-year-old boy was selected for secondary screening after he went through the metal detector. Yes, the boy’s genitals were checked, and his father was appalled. I suspect Pistole’s volte-face (or flip-flop, for the Francophobes still out there!) is a reaction to the public anger about subjecting children to intrusive groping. I think he and Janet Napolitano realized that anything smacking of pedophilia could doom their program. Hence the age of thirteen, when, apparently, children are no longer children. But pray tell how, exactly, a thirteen-year-old will process the experience differently than a twelve-year-old?

While there’s been an upswell in outrage about children being groped, there’s been almost no public attention to another group that will suffer disproportionately: people who are trans or intersex, or who for whatever reason don’t conform to sex/gender expectations. A couple of days ago, GallingGalla left a comment here that vividly highlighted the real dangers and humiliations awaiting her:

Apparently, TSA considers us to be terrorists simply by our existence, as they have issued directives indicating that people dressing in what they, the TSA, perceives to be the “wrong” clothing are more likely to be terrorists. I guess, since they think that trans women are “really men”, we must be hiding bad things in our lady clothes.

Along with that, I shudder to think about the harassment and sexual assault that is *sure* to follow the discovery of “non-standard” genitals.

It is because of back-scatter machines and pat-downs that I do not fly. I don’t have the privilege to “opt-out”; I simply *cannot* fly, as my very person will be in danger.

How long will it be before photos of people stripped naked by back-scatter machines wind up on 4chan or local “she-male” porn sites?

(I quoted most of it; the whole comment is here.)

Of course, the TSA policy both taps into and reinforces the trope of the “deceptive” trans person. It sets trans passengers up for public humiliation and violence. TSA personnel are not even trained to search a child with sensitivity. What are the odds that they will react calmly and reasonably to non-standard genitals?

Trans men are worried too, as evidenced by this anonymous comment at BoingBoing:

I’m a trans man (FtM transsexual), and I’ve NEVER packed when I go to the airport b/c I’m sure my dick would show up looking like plastic explosive in my pants. My home airport only has the n00dscanners, so now I am not entirely sure what I should do. Either way, it looks like I’m destined for molestation at the airport. Pack, and be singled out for a pat-down based on what shows up on the scanner, or not pack and have the TSO end up concerned/confused when the “enhanced” pat-down turns up the fact that I don’t have any balls for “resistance”.

I have a flight planned in January. I’m pretty nervous about it.

Those are pretty terrible choices. And in case anyone was reassured by the blurriness of the naked-scanner images that had been stored at a Florida courthouse and leaked yesterday by Gizmodo? The resolution on those is much lower than the machines are capable of delivering. The TSA has told the New York Times that the machines are able to image a sanitary pad. They weren’t able to say, however, whether the pad would trigger an enhanced pat-down.

Update 11/17/10, 11:10 p.m.: Edited above to add the material from Goldblog, where he notes that the war on terror is colliding with the war on pedophilia – and so far, terror is winning.

Update 11/22/10, 10:40 a.m.: See also this post by Rebecca at The Thang Blog on how the new procedures have effectively grounded her as a trans woman.

Update 11/22/10, 3:30 p.m.: … and similarly, this piece by Bridgette P. LaVictoire at Lezget Real, who stresses the humiliation and danger to which she’ll be exposed. The mainstream media remains (predictably) silent.

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I’ve been posting up a storm about why the new TSA body scanners are unethical and arguably illegal (and I’m not done yet). If you agree that the TSA has violated a line that should not be crossed in a democratic country that ostensibly values human rights, here are a few things you can do.

Right now, you can complain (politely) to the chair of the Senate transportation committee, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (WV), at 202-224-6472. The committee is holding an oversight meeting on the TSA tomorrow morning (Wed., Nov. 17) at 10 a.m. I just called and they were very nice to me, even though I’m not a West Virginia constituent. You can also go to the National Opt-Out Day website and see if your state has a senator on the committee. The site provides contact info for all committee members. I’ll probably call at least a couple of the senators from the states where I’ve got a personal history (North Dakota and California).

I just mentioned National Opt-Out Day in passing. This is a concerted effort to get passengers who are outraged about the TSA’s procedures to opt out on November 24. I don’t know the fellow behind National Opt-Out Day, Brian Sodegren, but he appears to be just one guy, not an organization, which makes me tend to think he’s just a fed-up citizen and not a minion of the Freepers, for instance. His website doesn’t sound any obvious right-wing dog-whistles, and a quick Google search doesn’t flag Sodegren as any flavor of extremist. Even if he were a Freeper, though, I’d be happy to make common cause on this issue, because civil liberties don’t belong to any particular political constituency. I’m staying home for Thanksgiving, but if I were traveling, I’d definitely join in. I hope the protest will call attention to TSA abuses and wake up some Americans who up until now simply trusted that everything the TSA does should make us safer.

Some people are choosing to boycott flying until the new policies are rescinded. I can’t do that because I need to visit family on the other side of the country, but if you want to join them – or even if you just want to follow breaking news on these issues – check out their Facebook page, We Won’t Fly. I agree with commenter Mark (who brought the page to my attention) that we need to act on a number of fronts. The intent of this tactic is to put pressure on the airlines and other branches of the travel industry, which will then put pressure on the government.

When I fly on December 2, I plan to opt out. I’ll politely but firmly state that I do not consent to having my breasts or genitals touched, I’m merely not resisting. I’ll also decline my “right” to be hand-screened in a private space, which only removes accountability. We have the right to a witness in private screening, but I’m flying alone, and I don’t consider a second TSA screener an impartial witness. Let the world see what the TSA is doing! The violation is in the invasive touching, not in the view that onlookers will get. If I’m subjected to invasive screening, I will document it. I’ll ask to lodge a complaint with the TSA. I’ll register it with the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s incident reports. (EPIC is suing to have the scanners removed from service). I’ll also report it to the ACLU. I’ll call my senator, Sherrod Brown. And of course I’ll blog about it!

I also thought about wearing only a swimsuit under my coat the next time I fly. This would underscore the ludicrousness of patting someone down when every curve and bump is visible. But overt protest actions only make sense if you can get them filmed, and I’m unfortunately traveling solo. (Also, I really do need to get to California, so getting kicked off the flight is not an option.) It turns out that one of Germany’s fringe political parties, the Pirates, beat me to the idea.

If you’ve got more ideas, leave them in comments, and I’ll do a follow-up post.

(Click here if you can’t view the clip.)

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Still Alive on November 15

after multiple nights of sub-freezing temperatures

one rose


two Silver Tidal Wave petunias

three yellow nasturtiums

and a single orange nasturtium.

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When the TSA first announced its rollout of body-scanners, my first thought was: What about privacy? My second: Are they safe?

While privacy is obviously and inarguably a massive issue, the facts aren’t quite as evident on the question of safety. Back in January, Lindsay Beyerstein made the point that one of the two types of scanner – the “backscatter” technology – uses x-rays, yet the machines are not subject to the sort of rigorous testing expected of medical equipment. Even CT scanning equipment, which is operated by trained medical personnel, has resulted in a distressing number of overdoses from wrongly calibrated machines, some of which were uncovered only after the FDA and the New York Times launched an investigation starting in late 2009.

TSA employees have no medical training – none! – and we have no reason to believe that they are prepared to recognized machine malfunctions. Indeed, they are so unprepared that one TSA employee told a pregnant traveler that the machines emit less radiation than do sonograms – a stunningly ignorant statement, given that ultrasound doesn’t rely on x-rays at all. (The pregnant woman was subsequently bullied into the body-scanners by repeatedly refusing her a pat-down.)

Lindsay also raised the question of cumulative radiation. How much is safe? I would argue that no matter how small the dose of x-rays, it is only justified if it will save lives, and if safer techniques would not produce the same results. The Israelis manage to make it work without routine body scans, primarily through painstaking intelligence on potential terrorists – no x-rays needed. (Link via the excellent overview of issues at Sister Sage.)

My husband has had cancer twice. It was treated with radiation the first time around. He’s had lots of CTs – too many – and caught some of the fall-out from Chernobyl back in 1986. He does not need any extra x-rays. My kids don’t need any extra x-rays. Nor do you or I, dear reader.

If I were a TSA employee on the front lines, I’d also want to know how much of an occupational risk I was running. On the one hand, the intensity of the radiation is purported orders of magnitude less than used in medical x-rays. On the other hand, what’s to keep the x-rays contained? The name “backscatter” is not reassuring on this score. TSA operators are spending entire workdays in close proximity to these devices.

The other type of strip-scanner does not use ionizing radiation. It relies on millimeter waves. Some questions have been raised as to the safety of terahertz waves, which may have the potential to essentially “unzip” DNA, but terahertz waves are not identical to millimeter waves, just adjacent to them in the spectrum. (Two abstracts on terahertz waves are here and here. My main takeaway is that their safety is not yet well researched.)

On its website, the TSA simply asserts that millimeter-wave technology is safe; it does not supply any data or link to any studies. I just ran a PubMed search on “millimeter waves” and “safety,” which turned up only six hits, only one of which seemed relevant. A review article in Health Physics from 2000 raised the question of whether occupational exposure (that is, of the sort some TSA employees experience) could result in hazards such as burns or cancer; I can’t access the full text, so I don’t know what they concluded.

It is striking, in any event, that PubMed yielded so little information on the safety of millimeter-wave scans. Business Week reports that their health effects are “largely unknown,” and that the president of the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements favors conducting a study that would assess their safety. Much of the information on the web conflates millimeter waves with the terahertz spectrum and thus appears less than trustworthy.

In short, the TSA may be correct that the low intensity of the energy from both types of scanners makes them unlikely to create a real health threat. If I were a frequent flyer or a flight crew member, I would still wonder why there’s so little hard information on their safety.

More importantly, I worry about a the lack of medical/technical oversight. Largely uneducuated low-level employees are operating these scanners. If a scanner were wrongly calibrated and delivered much higher doses, who would know?

At the end of the day, I still think the best health-related objection to the strip-scanners comes from Revere of the now-dormant but wonderful blog, Effect Measure. Revere applied his skills as an epidemiologist. He noted that any machine purporting to catch every would-be terrorist will have a substantial number of “false positives” – people who are flagged though they’re innocent. Precisely that is now occurring, as evidenced by the story of passenger Christine Holland (who subjected to a grope-search after the scanner suggested she was carrying contraband). Revere calculated how many false alarms would be raised by a machine with only a 1 in 100,000 false positive rate:

According to the Department of Transportation, during the last year there were about 710 million enplanements (US carriers, October 2008 – September 2009; excludes all-cargo services, includes domestic and international). That would produce 7100 false alarms, about 20 a day. How many passengers carrying explosives would the technology pick up? Well, we’ve had exactly 2 since 2001 (Richard Reid the shoe bomber and the current underpants bomber), or .25/710,000,000 enplanements (it’s actually less because enplanements have decreased substantially since 2001). So the probability of an alarm being correct is about 1 in 30,000 or .000033.

(Read the whole thing here.)

I swear Revere argued at some point that screeners will eventually become inured to false positives and thus won’t be alert if a real threat were to appear. I can’t find where he said that, but it’s a key point, so I’ll make it anyway. Add to this the tremendous waste of resources that goes into checking for liquids and gels, printer cartridges, baby formula, and other innocuous items. Now add the diversion of TSA energies toward thoroughly frisking and groping everyone from Jeffrey Goldberg to little kids.

In other words, the biggest health risk from the scanners is that we’re actually less safe from terrorists than we were before. Anyone else feeling queasy yet?

[Variation on my usual "I'm not a lawyer" disclaimer: I'm also not an M.D., a physicist, or an epidemiologist.]

Update 11/14/10, 9:40 p.m.: According to Agence France Press, serious scientists have raised concerns about the x-ray machines. Michael Love, a scientist who runs an x-ray lab at the Johns Hopkins medical school, stated that “statistically someone is going to get skin cancer from these X-rays.” In April, scientists at UCSF wrote the White House Office of Science and Technology, saying, “While the dose would be safe if it were distributed throughout the volume of the entire body, the dose to the skin may be dangerously high.”

Update 11/15/10, 11:10 p.m.: Here’s the full text of the letter (.pdf) from the UCSF scientists. The potential health risks it outlines are compelling enough that I’m not about to let my kids go through a backscatter machine. I’m also floored by how little study has been done on their safety.

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From where I live, it sure looks as though the body scanners – better termed “strip-search machines” – are in fact violating laws against child pornography. Ohio Revised Code section 2907.323 states:

(A) No person shall do any of the following:

(1) Photograph any minor who is not the person’s child or ward in a state of nudity, or create, direct, produce, or transfer any material or performance that shows the minor in a state of nudity, unless both of the following apply:

(a) The material or performance is, or is to be, sold, disseminated, displayed, possessed, controlled, brought or caused to be brought into this state, or presented for a bona fide artistic, medical, scientific, educational, religious, governmental, judicial, or other proper purpose, by or to a physician, psychologist, sociologist, scientist, teacher, person pursuing bona fide studies or research, librarian, member of the clergy, prosecutor, judge, or other person having a proper interest in the material or performance;

(b) The minor’s parents, guardian, or custodian consents in writing to the photographing of the minor, to the use of the minor in the material or performance, or to the transfer of the material and to the specific manner in which the material or performance is to be used.

In the case of body scanners, a photo is most definitely being taken. The TSA long maintained images weren’t being stored. Indeed, it repeatedly claimed images could not be stored.

That was a lie. Earlier this year, CNN documented the machines’ capacity to save and export images:

(Go here if you can’t see the clip.)

This week, the TSA’s false claims were further debunked at Alternet:

The U.S. Marshals Service admitted that just one courthouse checkpoint in Florida has stored tens of thousands of the images. And a report released last week revealed that the TSA demands all machines be equipped with the ability to record and transmit images for “testing, training, and evaluation purposes.”

So yes, the TSA is able to save and transmit pictures of children. The TSA insists that the “save” function is disabled before the strip-search machines are used on passengers. Blogger Bob – the friendly public face of the TSA – insists that “here is no fondling, squeezing, groping, or any sort of sexual assault taking place at airports.” Unfortunately for Blogger Bob, multiple witnesses report being groped. The TSA might be credible if it had a track record of truthfulness rather than truthiness.

Even if the “save” function is indeed disabled in the strip-search machines, we cannot know what transpires in the mind of the officer viewing the images. Some portion of the population gets off on pictures of naked children. The TSA has no mechanism to avoid hiring these people, other than rejecting applicants with a conviction for rape or aggravated sexual abuse less than ten years in the past. Applicants with older sexual assault convictions are fully eligible for hire. These regulations are silent on possession of child pornography. (Regulations via the travel blog Flying with Fish.) Last spring, a 44-year-old TSA employee at Logan Airport in Boston was arrested on “two counts of statutory rape, two counts of enticing a minor and one count of indecent assault and battery.” (The link is to Prison Planet, which mirrors the Boston Herald’s article – now partially behind a paywall.)

I imagine the TSA would cite a “governmental” purpose, as specified in paragraph (a) above. However – and this is a mammoth caveat – paragraph (b) further requires the written consent of the child’s parent of guardian.

Know any parents who would willingly sign off on this?

Otherwise, according to my reading of Ohio law, naked images of a child, whether transmitted or not, constitute child pornography. Creation of them is a second-degree felony.

(The usual disclaimer applies: I am not a lawyer, just a pissed-off mother. If are any real lawyers are willing to weigh in, I’d be grateful for your opinion!)

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(Trigger warning for descriptions of sexual violence and violations of bodily autonomy.)

In the face of TSA claims that the new “enhanced patdowns” don’t constitute groping, what do actual passengers have to say?

Predictably, most people are sheeple, and many apparently are willing to believe that losing our civil liberties are the price we have to pay for protecting our freedoms. But a few people – mostly women – have spoken publicly about feeling terribly violated. I’ve collected a variety of their voices. You’ll notice I’ve drawn on a wide variety of sources, including some you might consider fringy. Yet there’s no reason to discount these people’s stories. This post attempts to foreground their stories and voices rather than my analysis. We would do well to listen to them.

Rosemary Fitzpatrick, a CNN reporter, was subjected to a private grope screening after her underwire bra tripped the metal detector:

According to Fitzpatrick, a female screener ran her hands around her breasts, over her stomach, buttocks and her inner thighs, and briefly touched her crotch.

“I felt helpless, I felt violated, and I felt humiliated,” Fitzpatrick said, adding that she was reduced to tears at the checkpoint. She particularly objected to the fact that travelers were not warned about the new procedures.

Unsurprisingly, former victims of sexual assault are finding their trauma triggered by being violated in a place ostensibly devoted to their safety! Celeste, a survivor of rape, is quoted at the Pagan Newswire Collective:

“What they did to me, in full view of everyone else in line, was like being sexually assaulted all over again.  I was in shock.  I hate myself that I allowed them to do this to me.  I haven’t been able to stop crying since.” …

Coming back from Chicago, Celeste, like increasing numbers of travelers, was forced to make a difficult choice – either allow strangers to see her naked or allow strangers to touch and squeeze her breasts and groin in full view of other travels and TSA agents.  “This was a nightmare come to life,” Celeste says, “I said I didn’t want them to see me naked and the agent started yelling Opt out- we have an opt here.  Another agent took me aside and said they would have to pat me down.  He told me he was going to touch my genitals and asked if I wouldn’t rather just go through the scanner, that it would be less humiliating for me.  I was in shock.  I couldn’t believe this was happening.  I kept saying I don’t want any of this to happen.  I was whispering please don’t do this, please, please.”

Since Celeste didn’t agree to go through the scanner, the enhanced pat down began.  “He started at one leg and then ran his hand up to my crotch.  He cupped and patted my crotch with his palm.  Other flyers were watching this happen to me. At that point I closed my eyes and started praying to the Goddess for strength.  He also cupped and then squeezed my breasts.  That wasn’t the worst part.  He touched my face, he touched my hair, stroking me.  That’s when I started crying.  It was so intimate, so horrible.  I feel like I was being raped.  There’s no way I can fly again.  I can’t do it.”

But a history of sexual violence is not the only intersection with the TSA violations. Disability is also amplifying the trauma in some cases, as a 49-year-old woman wrote to libertarian blogger John W. Whitehead:

I was subjected to a TSA rub down in Pittsburgh in September. There is no patting happening. The officer ran her hands over every square inch of my body, firmly pressing into my flesh in every area when I declined to have myself irradiated. Being a recovery from chronic fatigue syndrome, I am extremely aware that my body needs protection from anything that is unnatural or unnecessary, and excess radiation is on my list of things to avoid. Unfortunately, the rub down elicited some trauma issues, and when I got upset and started crying, they started the “pat down” all over again.

Whitehead definitely has an anti-state, anti-Obama agenda, but I see no reason to doubt the first-person accounts he has collected; this issue seems to be rousing people who are right, left, and libertarian, while the mushy middle marches through the scanners without a peep. He also heard from a flight attendant:

They didn’t tell me it was a Full Body Scanner. I was not made aware that I even had an option to be patted down instead. After the scan, I was still patted down on my breast area because I was wearing my flight attendant wings. I truly felt molested. As a female traveler, I already have to deal with personal safety issues. In the past, when I have gone through the security line, I have experienced two of the TSA men standing staring at me, and I could overhear them deciding whether they thought I was attractive.

Understandably, flight attendants’ unions are urging them to insist on a private screening with a witness, and they report that a number of flight attendants are in contact with the ACLU, lodging complaints, and even preparing lawsuits. The leaders of two pilots’ unions, Mike Cleary and David Bates, have urged their members to avoid the radiation involved in body scanning, but each of them also noted the violation involved in the enhanced patdowns:

One pilot described his experience as “sexual molestation,” according to Cleary’s letter. Bates wrote, “There is absolutely no denying that the enhanced pat-down is a demeaning experience.”

We’ve also got oral interviews with a couple of women who’ve had bad experiences – one of whom submitted to the patdown, another of whom refused. The first comes from an interview by Alex Jones. Yes, he’s a Truther, but that doesn’t disqualify this woman’s testimony:

(Posted originally at Jones’ PrisonPlanet.)

Note that Michelle, this mother of two was not automatically given a same-sex screener, and she had to insist on having a woman screen her daughters, an 8-year-old and a young toddler. Her story starts at about 04:00: “They touched. And it was not back of hand. … It was a male officer that patted me down.” (Jones argues that this is sexual assault, for what it’s worth.)

A young libertarian gal, Meg McLain, had heard that the procedure routinely requires breasts be squeezed and twisted (“it hurts!”) and she refused to “let them touch me in ways that I’m not comfortable with.”

Around 2:15 on the clip, she says, “Its getting to the point where I feel more physically molested than if some random guy actually came up and molested me. It’s more intrusive than that.” Meg demands to see a manager, and within 30 seconds there are five or six TSA agents and a dozen cops. They wouldn’t let her touch her stuff. She kept posing questions, and one of the officials yelled at her whenever he doesn’t have an answer. They cuff Meg to a chair. One of the agents rips her airline ticket in half. She’s sobbing and can’t even reach her face to wipe it. They deliver a thirty-minute lecture on terrorism.

So maybe we should all just cave in to the strip-search machines? Well, it’s not so simple. Consider  this woman’s report of the groping she got after a TSA body scanner erroneously showed her carrying something (she never learned what) under her clothes. Yes, she docilely went through the scan and still wasn’t spared the humiliation of a full-on grope.

Michelle’s 8-year-old gets the last word: “Mom, why did they do that?”

Update, 11/17/10, 12:20 p.m.: Here’s another story of groping, this one from a young mother who was traveling with her baby. I’d say if the agent can feel your individual labia, they’ve definitely gone beyond any definition of a “reasonable” search.

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On the surface, government-authorized TSA groping seems like it falls on the spectrum of sexual assault. Ethically, it definitely violates consent. Legally, the situation is murkier.

In my jurisdiction (Ohio), “sexual imposition” (Ohio Revised Code 2907.06) seems applicable, if you read it in isolation from the rest of the code. Its definition begins:

(A) No person shall have sexual contact with another, not the spouse of the offender; cause another, not the spouse of the offender, to have sexual contact with the offender; or cause two or more other persons to have sexual contact when any of the following applies:

(1) The offender knows that the sexual contact is offensive to the other person, or one of the other persons, or is reckless in that regard.

I think it’s hard to argue that the TSA and its officers are not acting recklessly. It should be obvious to any sentient person that groping of breasts and genitals is will be experienced as offensive.

Furthermore, you can’t really make the case that no assault is occurring because passengers freely consent to the procedures. The only way I can travel from Ohio to California to visit my family next month is by air – period. I need to see my dad. The TSA is presenting people with a “choice” of being stripped naked by the body-scan machines, or undergoing an “enhanced patdown,” which amounts to groping by a stranger – or not getting on the plane. That is no choice at all. Moreover, as of October 21, signs at the security checkpoints in the Columbus airport said nothing about what alternative screening would entail. They most certainly did not warn passengers that their genitals would be touched. Passengers are being taken completely by surprise when that occurs. Thus, ORC 2907.06 (A) (3) would apparently apply:

(3) The offender knows that the other person, or one of the other persons, submits because of being unaware of the sexual contact.

But here’s a wrinkle. Ohio law defines “sexual contact” in pretty narrow terms:

ORC 2907.01(B): “Sexual contact” means any touching of an erogenous zone of another, including without limitation the thigh, genitals, buttock, pubic region, or, if the person is a female, a breast, for the purpose of sexually arousing or gratifying either person. [my emphasis]

In other words, the law has a mens rea requirement that limits it to cases where the perpetrator is getting off on the touching.

The TSA will of course argue that there’s no sexual intent or arousal and thus the procedure doesn’t amount to sexual assault. In fact, that’s exactly what TSA minion “Blogger Bob” has been asserting at the official TSA blog:

Also, there is no fondling, squeezing, groping, or any sort of sexual assault taking place at airports. You have a professional workforce carrying out procedures they were trained to perform to keep aviation security safe.

No “groping”? That’s an outright lie.

Does professionalism and training eliminate the possibility that at least some TSA employees will get a sexual kick from their groping? Of course not. Problem is, we can’t know who’s secretly getting some jollies and who isn’t. Unless a TSA officer makes crude comments in front of witnesses, you’ve got no case under Ohio law.

But here’s another wrinkle. Federal law takes a broader view of “sexual contact.” Here’s how U.S. Code Chapter 190A, dealing with “sexual abuse,” defines it in Section 2246 (3):

the term “sexual contact” means the intentional touching, either directly or through the clothing, of the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of any person with an intent to abuse, humiliate, harass, degrade, or arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person

Note that humiliation, harassment, and degradation all fall within the law’s definition. As Jeffrey Goldberg reports, the intent of the TSA is that “enhanced patdowns” will humiliate and harass flyers so that we’ll all march docilely through the body-scanners:

I asked him [the TSA officer] if he was looking forward to conducting the full-on pat-downs. “Nobody’s going to do it,” he said, “once they find out that we’re going to do.”

In other words, people, when faced with a choice, will inevitably choose the Dick-Measuring Device over molestation? “That’s what we’re hoping for. We’re trying to get everyone into the machine.” He called over a colleague. “Tell him what you call the back-scatter,” he said. “The Dick-Measuring Device,” I said. “That’s the truth,” the other officer responded.

So the intent to humiliate, harass, and degrade is definitely present – as a matter of policy! The problem here is that (as far as I understand it) federal law only applies to certain highly-circumscribed locations, including an airplane in flight or federal prisons. Even though the TSA is a federal agency, it wouldn’t necessarily be subject to this definition.

But why don’t state laws take on this broader definition? I’d love to see it adopted in every state. We can all think of instances where it’s not clear whether a groper is getting a sexual buzz or is just power-tripping. Your average public-transit groper might fall into this gray area. (And while we’re at it, some cases of medical assault – in childbirth or otherwise – could fall under this expanded definition, too, as long as they involve intent to humiliate or degrade.)

Broadening the definition to include “an intent to abuse, humiliate, harass, and degrade” wouldn’t eliminate a mens rea requirement. It would simply update the law to acknowledge that the motives behind sexual assault are a muddy mixture of power and sex.

In short, I don’t think we can make a case, legally, to try TSA officials (be they policymakers or lackeys) on sexual assault. We can make an excellent case for reforming definitions of sexual assault.

So do we have any legal recourse when it comes to TSA groping?

Well, I’d argue that routine molestation of passengers is unconstitutional. To me, it’s blindingly obvious that “enhanced patdowns” violate the Fourth Amendment:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

There’s no probable cause. No warrants have been issued. I guess some people might consider groping a “reasonable” response to terrorism. If so, why not permit cavity searches as well? Surely they’d be more likely to catch the next would-be bomber.

I really hope the ACLU will take this on. So far, they’re just considering possible action.

[Standard disclaimer: I am not trained as a lawyer! This above represents my best understanding as a layperson.]

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When I flew out of Columbus a few weeks ago, I was stunned to see the new machines arrayed at the checkpoint. Ours is a relatively podunk airport, and I’d hoped the body scanners would come either late or never. I eyed the machines queasily, calculated how much time I had to squander on security, and decided that I wouldn’t miss my flight if I stood on principle.

When I got to the front of  the line, I bravely announced to the TSA personnel that I chose to opt out of the body scanners. I walked through the metal detector. “Now where do I go?”


“I don’t want to go through the scanners. I’m opting out. That sign over there says I’m allowed to. So where should I go?”

“You just went through the metal detector, right?”

“Yes, but … don’t you want to pat me down?”

“No, you’re done.”

I grabbed my computer, wiggled into my shoes, and hightailed it for the gate before anyone changed their mind.

But that’s not how every airport is handling the opter-outers. Indeed, Columbus may have to change its policies. Here’s what happened when, faced with the new body-scanners at Baltimore-Washington International, Jeffrey Goldberg opted for a pat-down instead.

When I made this request, a number of TSA officers, to my surprise, began laughing. I asked why. One of them — the one who would eventually conduct my pat-down — said that the rules were changing shortly, and that I would soon understand why the back-scatter was preferable to the manual search. I asked him if the new guidelines included a cavity search. “No way. You think Congress would allow that?”

I answered, “If you’re a terrorist, you’re going to hide your weapons in your anus or your vagina.” He blushed when I said “vagina.”

“Yes, but starting tomorrow, we’re going to start searching your crotchal area” — this is the word he used, “crotchal” — and you’re not going to like it.”

“What am I not going to like?” I asked.

“We have to search up your thighs and between your legs until we meet resistance,” he explained.

“Resistance?” I asked.

“Your testicles,” he explained.

‘That’s funny,” I said, “because ‘The Resistance’ is the actual name I’ve given to my testicles.”

He answered, “Like ‘The Situation,’ that guy from ‘Jersey Shore?'”

Yes, exactly, I said. (I used to call my testicles “The Insurgency,” but those assholes in Iraq ruined the term.)

(Read the whole thing. It’s trenchant, highly entertaining, and right – as in “correct,” not “neocon right,” although that’s Goldberg’s usual beat.)

Whoa. I have never linked to Jeffrey Goldberg, and I may never do it again. But sometimes, even proponents of bombing Iran write something that’s so eminently sensible – and so funny – that it deserves a nonpartisan audience.

All of this leaves me wondering what my husband and I should do the next time we fly with our kids. Up ’til now, I thought the answer was obvious: opt out with the kids and spare them indoctrination into the creeping-fascist security state (not to mention exposure to superfluous radiation). Now, I’m not so sure. I picture them in a future therapists’ office: “Mama? Oh, she wasn’t all bad. Sure, she had her impatient moments, but we always knew she loved us. If she just hadn’t let the TSA molest us …”

(This is one of those occasions where I resort to sarcasm because the alternative is molten rage. Most of parenting consists of moments lost in the surging river of time. One moment that is still present and razor-sharp for me? When a Belgian airport security official subjected my Bear – then aged 9 – to a search that involved reaching inside the elastic of his sweat pants.)

I’m starting to wonder if we should all opt out of “the Dick-Measuring Device,” as Goldberg terms it. What would happen if we filmed the ensuing searches and put them on YouTube? Could we completely overwhelm the system if even a third of us opted out? (Yes, we’d all miss our planes, which is why this would probably never work.) What if apparently harmless moms like me started to yell, “Get your paws of my ladyparts!” when TSA agents failed to meet, um, Resistance?

Or we could take a page from Goldberg and just repeat “vagina” until TSA officials give up out of sheer embarrassment. I have no problem talking about the “crotchal area” (best whacko neologism since “refudiate”!) until the proto-fascist security state waves us through. For good measure, I think a carry-on full of sex toys might amplify the guards horror. But don’t worry – I won’t try that if the kids are flying with me.

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So let’s say you’re seeing your doctor, whether for a checkup or an acute problem. She looks you over carefully. Just on the basis of your appearance, she decides you’re at risk for significant health problems.

Sure, most readers of this blog are aware that appearance counts for a lot (too much!) when it comes to work and dating. But in the doctor’s office? Did you know that one common measure of health is whether you look your age? For all the time I’ve spent studying medicine, this practice was new to me.

Researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto report, via Eurekalert:

“Few people are aware that when physicians describe their patients to other physicians, they often include an assessment of whether the patient looks older than his or her actual age,” says Dr. Stephen Hwang, a research scientist at St. Michael’s Hospital and an associate professor at the University of Toronto. “This long standing medical practice assumes that people who look older than their actual age are likely to be in poor health, but our study shows this isn’t always true.”

For patients, it means looking a few years older than their age does not always indicate poor health status. The study found that when a physician rated an individual as looking up to five years older than their actual age, it had little value in predicting whether or not the person was in poor health. However, when a physician thought that a person looked 10 or more years older than their actual age, 99 per cent of these individuals had very poor physical or mental health.

(Read the rest here.)

Where I live – in an Appalachian county in Southeast Ohio – I suspect you actually do see lots of people who look a decade older than their chronological age. I’m basing this on anecdata gathered partly while in the waiting room at the ob/gyn’s office, where grandmothers-to-be often accompany their young pregnant daughters. I live in a pocket of endemic poverty. Poverty does beat people down. It ensures that they’ll grab cheap, satiating calories over a bunch of colorful veggies – just because it’s not pleasant to go to sleep at night with a gnawing sensation in one’s belly. We know that diabetes, for instance, is rampant in this region. So is extreme obesity.

But the pitfalls of using appearance as a proxy for health ought to be obvious, too. Take, for example, your faithful blogger Sungold, whose miraculously youthful complexion is due to … being born near the 49th latitude with her head in a book. I think I probably do look a few years younger than my age (especially compared to the local population) just because I didn’t get much sun as a youngster. But does that mean I’m healthy? Long-time readers know that I’ve got something undiagnosed, which is sort of like fibromyalgia and a bit like thyroid issues and a mimic of multiple sclerosis – but is apparently none of the above.

People who have a medical problem but look healthy are not well served by this rough-grained appearance test. Doctors will tend to dismiss their complaints because hey, they don’t look sick.

People who look much older than their actual age may also be poorly served. For example, too many doctors address problems like obesity on a radically individualized level, often with a dollop of shaming for letting oneself get too fat. The people in my region look old because they face multiple oppressions. Whatever wise or foolish decisions they’ve made in the past, they need a doctor to propose constructive solutions, not prejudge them based on appearance.

I hope doctors will take this study to heart and move toward evidence-based medicine when it comes to appearance. By all means, if someone looks extraordinarily aged, use that as a reason to inquire further. But do inquire. Please do ask. Appearance can only project a 2-D image. Patients’ words and embodied experiences can supply the essential third dimension.

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