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Apr 2011 13

by Wil Wheaton

Yesterday, I was touched – in my opinion, inappropriately – by a TSA agent at LAX.

I’m not going to talk about it in detail until I can speak with an attorney, but I’ve spent much of the last 24 hours replaying it over and over in my mind, and though some of the initial outrage has faded, I still feel sick and angry when I think about it.

What I want to say today is this: I believe that the choice we are currently given by the American government when we need to fly is morally wrong, unconstitutional, and does nothing to enhance passenger safety.

I further believe that when I choose to fly, I should not be forced to choose between submitting myself to a virtually-nude scan (and exposing myself to uncertain health risks due to radiation exposure*), or enduring an aggressive, invasive patdown where a stranger puts his hands in my pants, and makes any contact at all with my genitals.

When I left the security screening yesterday, I didn’t feel safe. I felt violated, humiliated, assaulted, and angry. I felt like I never wanted to fly again. I was so furious and upset, my hands shook for quite some time after the ordeal was over. I felt sick to my stomach for hours.

This is wrong. Nobody should have to feel this way, just so we can get on an airplane. We have fundamental human and constitutional rights in America, and among those rights is a reasonable expectation of personal privacy, and freedom from unreasonable searches. I can not believe that the TSA and its supporters believe that what they are doing is reasonable and appropriate. Nobody should have to choose between a virtually-nude body scan or an aggressive, invasive patdown where a stranger puts his or her hands inside your pants and makes any contact at all with your genitals or breasts as a condition of flying.

I do not have the luxury of simply refusing to fly unless and until this policy changes. I have to travel dozens of times a year for work, and it simply isn’t practical to travel any other way. Airlines know that I am not unique in this regard, so they have no incentive to take a stand on their customers’ behalf. Our government also knows this, so our Congressmen and Congresswomen have no incentive to stand up for the rights and freedoms of their constituencies against powerful and politically-connected lobbyists like the former head of the TSA. This is also wrong.

I have to travel back into the USA next week, and I’ll be back and forth between Los Angeles and Vancouver for much of the next several months. When I think about all this travel, I feel helpless, disempowered, and victimized by the airlines and the TSA … and I’m one of the lucky passengers who has never been sexually assaulted. I can’t imagine what it must feel like for someone who has been the victim of sexual violence to know that they are faced with the same two equally-unacceptable choices that I faced yesterday, and will likely face whenever I fly in the future.

It’s fundamentally wrong that any government can force its citizens to submit to totally unreasonable searches so we have the “freedom” to travel. It is fundamentally wrong that the voices of these same citizens are routinely ignored, our feelings marginalized, and our concerns mocked.

I don’t know what we can do to change this, but we must do something. I’m writing letters to all of my congressional representatives, contacting an attorney, and reaching out to the ACLU when I get home. I am not optimistic that anything will change, because I feel like the system is institutionally biased against individuals like me … but maybe if tens of thousands of travelers express our outrage at this treatment, someone will be forced to listen.

To add one more thing: I don’t believe that all TSA officersare automatically bad people (though we’ve seen that at least some are). For example, I recently flew out of Seattle, opted-out, and got a non-invasive, professional, polite patdown. It was still annoying, but at least my genitals weren’t touched in any way, which was decidedly not the case yesterday. I realize that most TSA officers are doing the best they can in a job that requires them to interact with people who automatically dislike them and what they represent. It isn’t the individual officer who is the problem; it’s the policies he or she is instructed to carry out that need to change.

* The TSA recently admitted that the amount of radiation passengers are exposed to in backscatter scanners was 10 times more than they originally claimed. The TSA claims that the scanners are still safe, but what else would we expect them to claim?

***

As a victim of abuse, airport security measures have caused me a lot of distress in the past, and since the new pat downs have been instigated I’ve stayed away from flying altogether (which is problematic given that my family reside overseas). I’m therefore very grateful to former SG editor and Geek In Review contributor Wil Wheaton (@wilw) for allowing us to repost this essay, which was first published on his blog on April 6th. – Nicole Powers, SG Ed

1 comments
Allison
Allison

I have not been subjected to the TSA "pat down" because I don't fly very often. But I agree w/ every word: "...violated, humiliated, angry"

Trackbacks

  1. […] Wil Wheaton wrote of his unpleasant TSA experience right on this very blog back in April, 2011: “I believe that the choice we are currently given by the American government when we need to fly is morally wrong, unconstitutional, and does nothing to enhance passenger safety. […]