Assume the Position

I've been flying a lot lately. Most often I'm waved through security - I
have my laptop out ready for scanning, and obediently remove my shoes. I
smile and am polite. But still, my bag is sometimes searched, or wiped with
a cotton swab to check for explosive residue. I also wonder whether due to
the increased rate of bag searches over the last decade, there has been an
increase in arrests for drug trafficking? Surely, in between confiscating
tweezers and Mountain Dew, they must stumble onto the odd reefer or small
bag of white powder?

But are the searches effective for what they're actually looking for? When
Random Breath Testing for drink drivers was introduced, people thought they
were more likely to be caught, when in fact statistically they were not.
While conviction rates went up because more people were being stopped, the
average motorist who had had an extra glass of wine in fact benefited from
herd protection and was less likely to be pulled over.

Of course, unlike many drivers in the 1980s (before social attitudes to
drunk driving changed), I am not concerned about being "caught" by airport
security. I am not a criminal, I am not carrying contraband. They can search
my bags all they please. But the 10 or 20 people who were waved through
while my bag was being searched, who weren't randomly selected? How do I
know they're not up to something? As with random breathalyzer checks, do
random bag searches actually protect some people through safety in numbers?

The TSA have also recently changed their policy for searches, allowing them
to frisk people with the palms of their hands rather than the backs. Having
received the old version, where a female agent barely brushed her knuckles
down my torso and legs, I can see why it was ineffective. And many places
outside the USA have been much more grabby for a long time. While I have yet
to encounter the TSA's new "junk touching" technique, I have had my cleavage
and backside efficiently groped by European agents many times. I have also
been through the "naked" scanner. I'm less concerned about someone seeing an
image of me in my knickers than I am about the dose of radiation I'm getting
from it. [In fact, I feel my privacy much more invaded by creeps who pester and
harass me, proposition me, and ask invasive sexual questions (and, dear
reader, you may be amazed how common such creatures are in the general
population). And I (how stupidly female is such social conditioning!),
I get embarrassed, and stammer, when it is they who should be
embarrassed. But I am intimidated, and lose my assertiveness, and don't tell
them to go straight to hell, which I should, and later wish I had. Now
that's a privacy invasion. When men follow me down the street, yell
things from cars, and I feel exposed: in a way nothing that airport security
does could achieve. When I check in for a flight, I'm prepared for what is
to come. I have my hand cream and lipstick in a little transparent bag, my
passport at the ready, and I know what to expect. Having bought an air
ticket, I signed up for it. Harassment I did not expect, or sign up for
simply by existing in public: that really upsets me.]

People used to set off across the Atlantic by ship, at much greater risk of
piracy or shipwreck than hijacking or crashes pose to air travellers today.
In fact, commercial air travel is the safest mode of transport yet invented.
But if they could have, would our 18th century ancestors have taken
TSA-style precautions? I'm sure they wouldn't have been afraid to profile.
Looking for pirates, they wouldn't have bothered searching old ladies and
children. But heavily armed men who looked like they'd been in a few fights?
"Step over here, sir. I need to search your bags. What's the purpose of your
visit? Vacation? Travel much in the Caribbean, sir?"

I don't know how much of an expectation of "privacy" in the sense that we
know it they would have felt, either. Eating, sleeping, defecating in close
quarters - as well as possibly giving birth, falling ill, or dying. Perhaps
they would think us all silly for worrying about TSA scanners.

I want to be safe when I travel, of course. I'd feel much more safe if I
knew everyone was being searched and questioned rather than a "random
selection". This is the policy in Israel, where instead of x-raying your
shoes, they are looking into your eyes and examining your body language.
Seems to work, too.

You must have seen movies where someone is sent to prison or a mental
institution. Stripped naked, cavity searched, forcibly "bathed" with a
power-hose: the purpose of this seemed to be as much about humiliating the
inmate as any real security issues. And with airport security? Is it really
their goal to break passengers psychologically? There have already been
stories of horrific treatment meted out to those who are handicapped,
wearing a catheter, or otherwise "different". Treating random innocent
people as suspects is not the way to get our cooperation in weeding out the
actual problem. But it's not airport security we need to cooperate with. It's each other.
When it comes down to it, we're the ones who are going to be there, not the
guy manning the x-ray machine on the ground. As with last year's underwear
bomber, who was stopped by another passenger: not airport security.

Like our shipbound ancestors, for whom precautions meant travelling in
convoy, carrying weapons, and praying for fair weather: they knew, miles
from home, that they had only each other to rely on. Whereas my journey
across the Atlantic takes hours rather than weeks, and I rarely speak to the
passengers around me, I have to have faith that we are all in this together.
It's all we can do.