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Schechter writes: "George W Bush's decision to establish the TSA was about visibly reassuring the public to keep them flying. It was also a way to create lots of jobs without his own party objecting. It was justified as 'at least we are doing something!'"

TSA's body scanners allow security personnel to view people naked 'for security reasons.' (photo: Gallo/Getty Images)
TSA's body scanners allow security personnel to view people naked 'for security reasons.' (photo: Gallo/Getty Images)

On Becoming an Opt-Out

By Danny Schechter, Al Jazeera

10 February 12


had been debating with myself, and a few friends, about whether or not to accept an invitation to attend a film conference in Iran. The argument against going is that by travelling there, you validate a dictatorial police state.

But with so few American journalists going to Tehran these days, I felt a higher duty to attend.

The first step in the long trip from New York was getting in line for an inspection by that uniformed Army called the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA), a $5bn agency that insists it is only there to keep us safe.

Talk about a police state.

There is no question that one consequence of its rigorous procedures is to teach the public how to be compliant and follow orders. It's a manifestation of a certain "friendly fascism" ushered in by 9/11, what the Right denounces in other areas as a nanny state.

Never mind that on that day of infamy in 2001, Boston's airport was run by an Israeli expert known for the highest security standards, or that security detectors at Newark found knives on hijackers, but they gave them back because they were legal at the time.

George W Bush's decision to establish the TSA was about visibly reassuring the public to keep them flying. It was also a way to create lots of jobs without his own party objecting. It was justified as "at least we are doing something!"

This Big Government hiring programme was driven by fear - but rarely criticised.

Back in the line at JFK airport, I noticed that in this class society of ours, the TSA permits shorter lines for First Class and Business Class passengers, ensuring that the 99 per cent/1 per cent divide is alive and well in our airports.

A very sweet black woman helped me schlep my plastic containers overflowing with a bulky winter coat, a sweatshirt with a zipper, belt, coins, pens, sneakers, iPad and computer.

I surprised the officer by telling her that in England they don't take computers out of bags anymore, and that Germany doesn't require belts and shoes to be taken off.

Her response: "I hope someday soon that we can end all this. It is a big drag for everyone."

Amen, sister.

I am sure she wouldn't want to be quoted by name because, as I soon found out, the TSA does not like people who are "negative".

Yet there have been many "negative" incidents - like old women being strip-searched, TSA agents asleep on the job and even reports of luggage being stolen.

Humiliation or Retaliation?

While all my stuff was going through one machine, I was steered to another, one of those supposedly safe body scanners where I was supposed to stand, hands up, as if I were being busted or guilty of something.

I decided then and there to seek an alternative. In TSA parlance, I became an "opt-out" and now had to go through a "standard male pat". The problem was that there was no one there to do it, so I ended up standing around for 10-15 minutes, no doubt as an example to those who don't follow orders.

Sure, it was a bit humiliating.

Finally, they found a young man who donned a pair of blue gloves to run his hands all over my legs and posterior, and check my underwear. I was ordered to raise my hands, the very procedure I objected to earlier. When I questioned all of this, he called for a superior because I was being "negative".

He was like the automaton that I was expected to become.

I had been reading articles by the investigators at ProPublica about the safety of these new machines that I opted out of:

  • "The head of the Transportation Security Administration has backed off a public commitment to conduct a new independent study of X-ray body scanners used at airport security lanes around the country."
  • "One type of scanner uses X-rays, and ProPublica and PBS NewsHour revealed questions about whether it might increase cancer cases."
  • "While the Transportation Security Administration says that airport body scanners are highly effective at detecting explosives hidden underneath clothing, some studies and a congressman briefed on classified research suggest the machines could miss carefully concealed plastic explosives."

Hmm ...

After reports of several cases of "anatomical ridicule" by TSA workers reported by CNN, a website named Helium reports:

"The Electronic Privacy Information Centre (EPIC) has filed suit under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain from the Department of Homeland Security details regarding the use of advanced imaging technology, which includes the full body scanners.
Also, the TSA has stated that the plan for using the devices with the general public is to have the worker viewing the scans isolated in a room, separate from the traveller lines and imaging devices, so that anyone in contact with the person being imaged cannot see the image. The images are also not going to be saved, though suspected individuals may have their images stored eventually, which could lead to abuse. And some people still cringe at the thought of someone in a room giggling at them."

I am not the only opt-out to write about all of this. Stephen Checkoway responded to a post on the Lawfare Blog calling on the TSA to be more like the Israelis and interview people they think are suspicious:

"The primary criticism is that the TSA has overstepped its authority - or if it has not, then it has too much authority - in implementing invasive new security procedures. The new full body scanners are of dubious utility and there are unresolved medical questions...
The problem is that the government has decided that having naked-ish pictures taken or being groped in a manner that when performed by any other stranger would be sexual assault can be made a precondition of flying. What's worse is the standard pat-down is quite clearly retaliatory with TSA agents reportedly calling out things like "We've got an opt-out!"

By the time I landed in Iran, I had put most of the TSA indignity behind me, only to find myself waiting for their security checkers. As it turned out, all they wanted were electronic fingerprints - at least from me and the two other Americans with me.

It turns out that after the US border agents started taking fingerprints of foreign visitors at US airports, other countries followed suit on travellers from the "land of the free".

That only took an hour. By then it was 2 AM, and I was wondering why I hadn't opted out of this whole travel ordeal in the first place.

Danny Schechter writes the blog. His latest book is Occupy: Dissecting Occupy Wall Street. His latest film is Plunder: The crime of our time. Comments to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it your social media marketing partner


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+14 # Billy Bob 2012-02-10 19:52
"Small government" conservatives? I'd like your take on all of this.

If OWS really wanted to, it could do something about this, by simply having people stop flying whenever possible. If it was well known that the lull in air travel business was due to the police state slippery slope we're on, someone in Congress (certainly not the White House) would be brave enough to actually do something about this.
+5 # AMLLLLL 2012-02-11 08:40
Sadly, I've heard they plan to expand the full body scan program to trains. Creepy. Drug and explosive sniffing dogs would be much more effective and appealing.
0 # Majikman 2012-02-11 23:10
FYI: Before St Ronald destroyed PATCO (professional air traffic controllers org) the method the ATC used at contract time when the feds would stall at negotiations or threaten the usual "no dice" crap...was to "Work to the Rules". Working by the book would slow down air traffic to almost a standstill nationwide. You can imagine the hell congress raised when their flights out of National were strike, contract settled, biz as usual.
+6 # Majikman 2012-02-11 01:00
I stopped flying years ago, not only because of TSA, but also because I know a little something of the airline industry. The indignities (and risks) don't end with TSA screening by any means. Health risks aside, it's a degrading, insufferable experience to fly.
There is one local commuter. One is still treated with respect and not subjected to humiliating scans and patdowns. We used to ridicule the tinker toy commuters and now I fly them with nostalgia for when flying was a welcome pleasure.
+1 # futhark 2012-02-11 05:41
I think it likely that economics of flying may eventually solve this problem, at least in part. As fossil fuel resources become more limited, so will their cost. The airlines will have to keep boosting ticket prices to cover the cost of fuel and will eventually reach a point where severe cutbacks will have to be made in available routes. As our society's fossil fuel consuming orgy winds down, fewer people will be harassed by "security" procedures.

I haven't flown since 2001 and haven't missed it. I've talked to others who are avoiding air transport on the basis of its complexity and the harassment they have to endure to get on a plane.
+7 # Granny Weatherwax 2012-02-11 07:14
The next thing we know they catch a madman with C4 or semtex in a condom up his [redacted] and we will have to bend over and cough at the airport.
+3 # fixerguy G 2012-02-11 09:52
I quit flying because of this police state mentality. If TSA wants to do something that is actually effective in preventing terrorist take-overs I offer an option: Re-institute the Sky Marshal Program from the 60's and 70's. OR do as several other countries do... Deputize and arm any ex-military who are flying for the duration of the flight. Simple, cheap and extremely effective. The "bad guys" never know who they have to avoid. But I will no longer fly. fu TSA
+5 # Billsy 2012-02-11 10:58
We're sheep to be intimidated into putting up with this theater of the absurd every time we fly. Last time I objected to an overly agggressive TSA staff in Charlotte NC, i was told "sorry, it's because we can't profile". Utter nonsense.
+4 # 2012-02-11 12:42

The TSA are unnecessary (they've never caught a terrorist) and obnoxious (they confiscate stuff, conduct intrusive searches with warrants, often delay travelers). In my last several trips abroad, I was delayed for multiple hours twice because I had unusual itineraries which included visits to non-touristy locations in Greenland and north Africa.

The TSA folks are too often on the classic "power trip" and we would all be happier and just as safe if we eliminated the agency.

Lee Nason
New Bedford, Massachusetts
0 # Emil Sinclair 2012-02-11 19:15
Please edit. I'm sure you mean "withOUT warrants" (which is a violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, one of the Articles of the Bill of Rights).
+4 # disgusted American 2012-02-11 18:10
I opted for the body-groping - not interested in Chertock's cancer machines.

Had to ask the groper to change her gloves. Thought I would be detained for this but why should the gropers protect themselves from the gropees but not offer the same courtesy to us.

Then a huge thug - oops, TSA agent - was going through my zip-lock bag and decided to focus on the two tiny bottles of maple syrup I was bringing as gifts - acceptable size. He yanks them out of the bag and yells, "These aren't allowed. What's in these bottles?"

First off, numbnuts, ask what's in the bottles before you start ranting, or better yet, read the label on the back.

So he decided my toothpaste (also the correct sz) was in violation and was going to toss it. I told him, "Toss it and you give me money to buy another. I showed him the TSA regs from the site - didn't include toothpaste as a no-no if the correct sz - not a gel, not an aerosol, etc. I went through the year before with same, no problem.

So he said, I'm going to search your carry-on. I replied: Knock yourself out but if I miss my flight, you'll reimburse me for the ticket.

He didn't bother and went on to intimidate the next passenger.

At Geneva Int'l airport, no bs. You put your stuff in a tray. That's it. No removal of shoes, no gropers, no cancer scans.

Only in Amerika.
+1 # Emil Sinclair 2012-02-12 20:46
And some, if not many, of you think I'm crazy to say that the U.S. is becoming very similar to Nazi Germany, more and more. Pretty soon the U.S. government will not let anyone leave the country who isn't privileged. That's what it's coming to. And, thus, no one who stands for truth and is on the government's radar will be allowed to leave the country very soon. All of the dissenters, not true terrorists, are who is really being targeted.

They're working towards checkpoints everywhere within the "Homeland". Doesn't that remind you of Nazi Germany? This all isn't to protect us. It is to get us used to and to accept that we "are slaves" that the government can do anything with and/or to that they please. And the most disgusting thing is that most "Americans" ARE accepting and bowing down to it just as the so-called "good Germans" did, to the demise of millions of innocent people!

"Land of the (slaves), and the home of the (cowards)"!

God save us and protect us (from our own government and/or the supposedly most respectable government on the planet)!
+1 # 666 2012-02-13 06:39
Emil its not just that they wont let the outspoken leave the country, its that they are also preventing them from flying within the country. as tsa continues expandings its power to rail and bus transit, such people will be denied that as well, plus entry to events the like daytona 500, superbowl, etc. (as though they could give a shit).

then of course there are the (proposed? or actual?) random stops on streets and hiways. What I want to know is what the f--- will they do when they find I prefer larger tubes of crest gel toothpaste when I travel by car? send me home? label me as an opt-out of the new amerika and send me to a halliburton concentration camp?

wake up people, it's 1984. but then I'm preachin' to the choir on this site.

besides if we really want to stop terrorism, north korea provides a much better object lesson than israel...
0 # Emil Sinclair 2012-02-13 23:26
I was completely "with you" and/or in agreement with you until that last part, but I'm not sure I follow what you're saying in your last sentence. Terrorism is terrorism. Both North Korea AND Israel are perpetrating terrorism "to the max"; therefore, I'm "not sure" North Korea would be "a much better object lesson than Israel". Yes, North Korea may be (far?) worse than Israel, but that does NOT make Israel's terrorism any less egregious. Thus, we shouldn't, AT ALL, excuse ANY of Israel's terrorism; which, whether you mean to or not, you appear to be doing (perhaps to try and keep yourself from being called "anti-Semitic"? ).
0 # JosephSmith 2012-05-22 16:58
What you need to be doing while being "humiliated" is explain to anyone who looks like they'll listen that the TSA dragnet search is unconstitutiona l and/or that you believe the Microwave Radiation Chamber causes cancer. Or whatever else your reasons are for not complying.

I guarantee you this will speed things up for you. It hasn't backfired for me once.

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