Flying Naked

So, a guy tried to light his penis on fire on an airplane last week, and now we’re having a debate over whether or not passengers should endure virtual strip searches while going through airport security.

Frankly, I’m really frustrated with this penchant for reactionary politics.

Yes, we live in an era of terrorism; average Americans are finally aware that decades of eschewing global diplomacy (a political position perpetuated by a long litany of presidents who perceived the international community as a wild, wild West to their John Wayne) has left the rest of the world with a sour taste for America and Americans. Enter the suicide bombers, and the wannabe suicide bombers, whose sole goal has become to destroy himself and as many other innocents he can in order to send a political message that America has screwed up. Terrorists have no common culture, religion, or skin colour; terrorists are the down-trodden and miserable who have turned insane and murderous.

Now, of course, it is the federal government’s responsibility to deter terrorists from taking the lives of citizens. And certainly, terrorism is the kind of tactic that does not — can not, will not — work as a means of political activism. It only serves to radicalize the terrorist, and to shut down lines of negotiation. A terrorist will never terrorize the hegemony into changing; a terrorist only seeks gratification in communicating — through the most destructive and amoral means possible — his own pain at his own sociopolitical stature. In many ways, terrorism is an extension of the age-old adage: misery loves company. If a terrorist truly sought political change, he would realize that terrorist acts only undermine any constructive efforts towards that goal.

This fact is no more apparent than in the story of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would-be bomber who tried to explode a Detroit-bound airbus on Christmas Day by igniting explosives sewn into the crotch of his underpants. Abdulmutallab is 23 years old — a mere child — who for reasons that have yet to be revealed to the public, was so frustrated and angry that he (allegedly) wanted to off himself and 290 other people in one mad, irrational, and ultimately immature act of fury and rage. His actions were insane, but he is only one in a long line of terrorists who, intoxicated by the emotional appeal of vengeance-begotten terrorism, have invented new ways to attempt to blow themselves (and those around them) up.

What frustrates me, however, is the reactionary approach America’s Homeland Security has taken towards deterring terrorists. Terrorists have stayed ahead of the federal government, primarily because the federal government keeps looking backwards in trying to stop terrorists. In the wake of 9/11, airport security was greatly increased, but little was done to secure harbours and sea ports, train stations or bus stations. When the shoe bomber attempted to ignite his own shoes on an airplane, new regulations required passengers to remove their shoes so they could be scanned by the X-ray machine. Would-be terrorists with liquid explosives ended the era of passengers being able to bring bottled water (or liquid medications or contact lens solution) onto flights. And now that the underwear bomber thought of shoving explosives down his underpants, the federal government is coming up with ways to scan passengers’ underwear in a convenient, hygenic, and “non-invasive” way.

The strategy that we will most likely see implemented in U.S. airports is the installation of full-body scanners which employ a couple of strategies to generate a digital image of a person without clothes, revealing any dense items hidden within a person’s clothing. One type of scanner, dubbed a “millimeter wave” scanner, creates a low resolution image using non-ionizing electromagnetic waves. Here’s some sample images released by the TSA:

Sample images from millimeter wave full-body scanner

Another scanner, called the “backscatter X-ray”, employs a low-intensity X-ray to generate an image of a body while stripping away layers of clothing. Here’s a sample image taken of a victim volunteer wearing a gun to demonstrate the scanner’s effectiveness at detecting hidden weapons:

Sample image from a "backscatter x-ray" scanner

Currently, the TSA is favouring the millimeter wave scanner because the low resolution, they feel, will minimize privacy concerns. Further, these scanners are being modified such that they will not save images, so that naked pictures of you (or your favourite celebrity) don’t end up on TMZ. In addition, these scanners are going to be set up such that the person holding the metal detector wand and waving you through the security checkpoint isn’t also looking at your naked form on their computer screen; instead, images will be transmitted to a different location in the airport where they will be reviewed by a security guard who sees the scans with the faces obscured. 

However, both strategies share in common the ability to detect objects — weapons or otherwise — that a person has hidden on their person. And this, I think, is an invasion of personal privacy.

Contrary to how most folks are criticizing the implementation of this full-body scanning technology, this isn’t a puritannical fear of having others being able to see you naked. All of that hullaballoo basically amounts to “Oh my God! You can see me naked even if I don’t want you too!”. Yeah, you’re not that cute, mister — no one is dying to virtually strip you down to your skivvies to drool over you in your birthday suit.

 The privacy concerns are completely about whether or not you, or I, or any other airline passenger has the right to privately carry a possession while travelling. Be it a piece of jewelry handed down from your great grandparents, a piece of medical equipment you don’t want your co-workers knowing you need, or a secret cell-phone you’re using to help conduct an adulterous affair — complete strangers (even ones who work for the TSA) should not have the ability to be aware of — and access to — items on your person you don’t want them (or anyone else) to know about. These full-body scanners are as invasive, and as unethical, as a virtual strip-search. And frankly, it’s not too far from a virtual cavity search, either.

Moreover, no amount of security will eliminate the threat of terrorism. Terrorists will be able to invent new ways to bypass these scanners, as they were able to bypass our ban on shoes and tiny bottles of shampoo on airplanes. To put it simply, a determined terrorist — particularly one who is willing to lose his life in the act of terror — will find a way.

Instead of trying to play an endless game of catch-up, why hasn’t the federal government revised its strategy on securing airports and other high-traffic areas? It shouldn’t be about constantly adding new (and admittedly, at least to the science geek in me, kinda cool) pieces of technology to the already long list of things to do at the security checkpoint — making the amount of time it takes to board a plane longer than most flights, themselves. Instead, how about screening passengers at check-in or flagging suspicious behaviour? How about actually disseminating no-fly lists to all relevant departments and keeping those lists up-to-date with information? Or better yet, how about altering our international policies so that folks are less pissed with us in general?

But, of course, that’s not going to happen, because it’s politically safer to close the security gap that allowed what has been done, than to scare the tax-paying public into paying for something with a story of what still could be done. Meanwhile, this whole fiasco is yet another reminder as to why I hate flying. I mean really, between:

  1. aforementioned security bullshit, and
  2. restrictions preventing me bringing most of my belongings as carry-on items, and
  3. charging me ($20 or more!) to check a piece of luggage, as well as charging me for food, entertainment and even blankets, and
  4. rude flight attendants, and
  5. grimy seats and floors that aren’t even cleaned between flights anymore, and
  6. overcrowded planes full of inconsiderate passengers and their screaming babies

… next time I travel, I’m taking the frickin’ train.

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