(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:
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.