A REPORT FROM the front line against terrorism:
On vacation Thanksgiving week, at the airport, I made the metal detector beep, and that meant I was to be patted down. The magnetometer beeped because I forgot to remove my belt, but the uniformed officer asked me to step aside so she could search me.
That's right, she. It was the day after Thanksgiving and a couple of days after hysterics were screaming that Transportation Security Administration screeners were planning a sexual-harassment kegger party for passengers. Under TSA rules, I could have requested a male screener, but if I was going to be groped, I thought, wouldn't that be a little gay of me?
I admit that some among TSA's 50,000 employees are jackasses. Like the screener who manhandled a prosthetic breast, or the lump who planted fake drugs on passengers as a "joke."
Since Nov. 19, when TSA began counting complaints about screening, it registered a little more than 1,000. During the same period, TSA screened 22 million passengers, I was told by TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis. Do the math and tell me this is a major issue.
The female screener was professional, using her palms and fingers to feel my lower legs and arms, the back of her hand on my chest and back. She didn't get too close to my junk.
Under TSA rules, passengers to be patted down can demand a private area and also a witness of their choosing, but that didn't apply because I was at Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay, Jamaica.
Ya, mon - I wasn't in the USA, and the screener didn't work for TSA. (Bob Marley could have made lyrics out of that.)
Passengers get patted down for any of three reasons, says TSA spokesman Jim Fotenos: 1) They set off the magnetometer (metal detector), 2) They decline the Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) body scanner and choose the hand search, 3) An "anomaly" is detected in the body scan. (There are two types of AIT: the backscatter, which uses X-rays, and the millimeter wave, which uses electromagnetic waves.)
You've got a better chance of hitting the daily number than being patted down. "Less than 3 percent nationally received a pat-down," says Fotenos.
TSA does screening because our enemy is determined and devious. They are willing to kill themselves to kill us (remember the shoe bomber and the underpants bomber?), and we are not willing to be inconvenienced? Nobody likes the screening, but I direct my anger at Muslim fanatics, not at the TSA.
Some TSA critics call the screening "security theater," but the only alternative I hear from them is profiling, which we should do, but one layer of security isn't enough. Personally, I'd also employ sniffer dogs.
Don't like "security theater"? Would you buy tickets to fly on I'm Feeling Lucky Airlines, which advertises "No pat-down, no magnetometer, no body scan, no waiting"?
During a sunshiny and relaxing week at Sandals Whitehouse resort (Whitehouse is one word, no presidents on the property), I occasionally tuned to CNN to watch the rising commotion about searches and discussions of how to balance security and liberty.
I saw what was portrayed as a growing revolt against searches that were too "invasive," too "personal," too "uncomfortable," or whatever. That is a fair discussion to have. The system is imperfect. Every system is, which is why we need layers of security.
The "hero" of the week was software engineer John Tyner, who ignited protests with his "Don't Touch My Junk" video. The TSA people were perfectly proper and polite, as was Tyner, who refused AIT and pat-down, but volunteered for the magnetometer.
Hmm. He's OK with the metal detector, but not a pat-down and not a body scan. If you're a TSA screener, would you be suspicious?
The protest, which was called for the day before Thanksgiving and asked passengers to request pat-downs to clog the system, flopped because passengers - duh! - realized a logjam might make them miss their planes. The protest movement had its 15 minutes of fame.
I can tolerate the enhanced security, but I want TSA to pay more attention to where passengers are coming from, whether they paid cash for tickets that might be one-way and if they played goalie for their madrassa soccer team.
My right to fly safely overrides their dislike of close scrutiny and other passengers' squeamishness about pat-downs or body scans.
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