TSA Scanner Protests Continue as Agency Downplays Dissent


While the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) attempts to downplay the level of dissent to their new airport scanners, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reports that travelers continue to file complaints.  The new TSA body scanners drew widespread criticism from civil libertarians while questions were also raised about the long-term health risks of the machines.  Officials claimed that the enhanced screenings were safe and a necessary part of the developing anti-terrorist security measures.

TSA officials downplayed the level of complaints by claiming that only 49 were filed during high-volume travel over Thanksgiving weekend.  John Pistole, the Head of the TSA, took the pages of USA Today to refute the claims of opponents.  Pistole argued that the scanners were safe and that the scanner “cannot store, export, print, or transmit images.”  Those who refuse or fail the scanner, face a pat down, by what Pistole described as “same gender officers” who received “specific training in pat-downs.”  Finally, Pistole cited unnamed “public surveys” to claim that four out of five Americans support the new TSA scanners.

ACLU reports paint an entirely different picture.  While official complaints declined, letters to the rights group have surged. Complaints published on their website describe searches that are extremely invasive, intense feelings of violence and humiliation and physical injuries.  All told, in the month of November alone the ACLU claimed to receive more than 1,000 complaints from passengers. Those published document tales of coercion and humiliation meted out by TSA officers.

“She ran her hands all the way up and into my crotch with force,” said Paula M. Hamilton, of Corydon, Indiana, “. It was more intense than my monthly breast exam.”

Aaron, a passenger from New York, described TSA agents as acting quite differently from Pistole’s well-trained same-gender officers.  “3 or 4 TSA employees came over, basically surrounded me and very loudly proclaimed what a jerk I was for refusing the scan, were laughing at me, repeatedly berating me.”  He summarized the incident by claiming that TSA officers “intended to punish me for electing to not be irradiated.”

The ACLU’s explanation for the dwindling number of complaints fielded by the TSA is that abused passengers either do not understand where to file complaints to the agency or feel those complaints will not be treated fairly.  “As the abundant complaints received by the ACLU illustrate,” Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst with the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project stated, “Americans do not want to be forced to choose between letting government agents touch their bodies or take naked pictures of them.”

Pistole and the TSA can pump out as much propaganda as they want to contrary, but it is quite clear that the level of resistance to the current imposition by the security state is unprecedented in the post-9/11 period.  Protests have varied from the absurd, including bikini and Speedo clad passengers, to more serious attempts at organizing a day of action.  Such actions do more that just question the merits of a particular scanner or the aggressive procedures of overzealous TSA officers.  Instead, they raise powerful questions about the role of dissent in a democracy and about the ability of the public to determine the limits of intrusive surveillance.

The deep divide on these questions was clear even in Pistole’s tightly controlled presentation.  He stated quite clearly that, “I see flying as a privilege.”  Holding such a perspective justifies nearly any type of intrusive act imaginable.  Any perspective informed by even a modicum of democracy would understand flying as one of the many things that humans do in which they maintain their rights – both civil and human.  With such powerful forces allied against the maintenance of such rights, popular social movements infused with a left-libertarian spirit seem like the only viable alternative to being scanned, groped and ultimately dismissed.

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