3 reasons you’ll shut up after being humiliated at the airport

tsascanLike most infrequent air travelers, Vicki Burton just wants to get through security without causing a scene. So on a recent flight from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Miami, she obediently stepped into the airport’s full-body scanner, held her arms up, and waited for the agent to wave her through.

He didn’t.

Instead, a female screener was summoned to give Burton an “enhanced” pat-down. “My breasts were patted down right there in front of God and everybody,” she says. “I wasn’t even afforded the privacy of a screen. I was so stunned, I was just mute. What do you say without being arrested? What should I have done?”

Good question. To paraphrase Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, she should have said something.

Why do people keep their mouths closed when they feel violated? A combination of powerful motivators keeps air travelers quiet. Only by understanding these influences can we end them.

Reason #1: you’re not crazy, are you?

Many passengers are afraid that if they speak up, they’ll end up as the hysterical passenger on YouTube — reacting irrationally to what many consider “rational” airport security.

I wrote about this incident after it happened. Although there were good reasons for her reaction, according to her son who taped the entire episode, she was nonetheless tarred as a loonie by TSA supporters (read the comments on her video if you doubt me).

Reason #2: everyone else is doing it

Another effective tool of persuasion: peer pressure. Everyone else is going through the scanner; everyone else is getting patted down. What’s your problem? Don’t you care if there’s a 9/11 sequel?

Besides, American airport security is the “gold standard,” isn’t it?

I encountered these faulty arguments the first and only time I was prodded into a full-body scanner. It was months before the opt-out protest, and the devices were still being tested in only a handful of airports. A friendly TSA agent told me I had nothing to worry about. “We’ve all been through them, everyone else is going through them, and you won’t feel a thing,” she assured me.

Well, if everyone is going through them, then what do I have to worry about?

Peer pressure — the fact that no one else seems to be complaining — keeps you quiet when your conscience tells you to speak up.

Reason #3: you’ll miss your plane

The final, and perhaps the most persuasive trick, is the implied threat that if you resist, you’ll miss your flight. Unfortunately, it’s not an empty threat, and the TSA agent screening you knows it. If a blueshirt believes your attitude is anything less than docile, you could be subjected to a retaliatory wait time.

It doesn’t help that airlines are unforgiving when their passengers miss a flight — a “no-show” in airline parlance. Often, air travelers either have to pay for a new ticket at an expensive “walk-up” fare or get sent to their destination by a less convenient route, missing appointments or a valuable vacation time. No one wants that.

Had Burton stopped, asked to speak with a supervisor, and filed a report, she would have been threatened with these three possibilities: becoming a poster girl for crazy, being made to feel like a problem passenger, or missing her flight.

It wasn’t an anomaly. On her return flight, TSA agents did exactly the same thing to her.

Time to say something

This has to end. There’s no evidence that patting down passengers like Burton has made air travel any safer. The only thing it’s accomplished is to erode a number of constitutional rights we once took for granted, say critics.

If invasive, prison-style pat-downs are accepted by air travelers, then who knows what other kinds of searches the TSA might someday try?

The agency has ruled out more invasive searches, at least for now. But in a recent poll, one-third of Americans said they would be in favor of cavity searches to board a plane. No, you didn’t read that wrong. Cavity searches.

The next time a TSA agent asks you to do something you’re uncomfortable with, say something. You won’t just be helping yourself, but all of the passengers who pass through the checkpoint after you. And if enough passengers speak up, the TSA might stop treating us like inmates when we exercise our constitutional right to travel.

It can’t happen soon enough.

Is it too difficult to speak up at a TSA screening area?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • http://twitter.com/wilcamp wil b campbell

    There are 0 North Americans, much less US citizens, with “0 access” to boats or trains. The overwhelming majority of these can be arranged, with handicap access, ahead of time.
    Afford the time? Answer: Plan.
    Emergency? Perhaps you should carefully consider your reaction. Telephone technology is very old, and available to anyone willing to do a day’s work at minimum wage.
    If it is offensive you to consider manual labor or planning or personal gratification delay for a greater good, perhaps it would be best if you reply to your friends. I remain ready for civil debate.

  • http://flyicarusfly.com/ Fly, Icarus, Fly

    Let’s keep this civil. I would hope this forum can be a place where people feel free to disagree with others (rightly OR wrongly) and not be called names for it.

  • pauletteb

    Another SSDD column from Chris . . . yawn.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    Sadly ironic, I said this in an earlier comment here:

    Even in 2013, if a woman complains, she’s “hysterical” or “emotional.”

  • Mundane Lustrator

    Please look at Amtrak’s US map. You will see vast tracks of this wonderful country are not on any passenger train line.

    Please look at a regular US map. You will see many landlocked states without navigable rivers.

    I wasn’t clear when I said “afford the time.” Some people do not have a generous vacation plan. Some companies do not allow employees to bank hours. So no matter how much planning is done, the vacation time simply isn’t there. Many of these people cannot afford to take time off without pay, or are at risk of being fired for taking time off without pay. These people have the right to travel by the most expeditious means, which includes airplanes.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “Perhaps you should carefully consider your reaction” in regards to an emergency.

    Using a telephone is really neat, and one of the greatest 20th Century inventions. So what? Workers need to leave their work sites. How are they going to travel 3000 miles round trip in a week and spend any time at home taking care of their family?

    I’m also not sure what you mean by “If it is offensive you to consider…” Is there a word missing? What do you mean by “manual labor?”

    Are you saying all air travel is “personal gratification” and therefore unnecessary?

    Also, not sure what you are saying by “perhaps it would be best if you reply to your friends.” That makes no sense at all, especially when followed by the last sentence.

    (grammar edit)

  • Susan Richart

    I wholly support your notion that the majority of people who support the TSA have never traveled by air – at least not in the last 11 years.

  • mfriedlieb

    The survey result says it all and aligns with your article’s basic point, if passengers are passive in their experience through TSA security the probability of anger and the sense of violation increases. I’ve been traveling for work 2 times a week pretty much every week for the past 12 years, both before and after 9/11. For focus, I’ll avoid diving into the debate over whether TSA security is necessary or even whether how they do it is effective, “right,” or even reasonable. I’ll take the status quo as is, and simply address the question of how do we, individual passengers, ensure our individual safety and dignity. 1) Arrive at the airport AT LEAST 1 hour prior to your departure time for domestic and 2 for international…period. Of the folks I’ve seen all these years freaking out at delays of one form or the other at the security check-point, the majority are owing to personal anxiety brought on by not allowing enough time for the process. Every passenger has personal control over this variable, use that control. If circumstances prove otherwise, take a deep breath and DON’T have the expectation that you’ll make your originally scheduled flight. Sub-point to personal control, if you get to the airport late, make your first stop the ticket counter to re-book to a later flight, not the security line. 2) Dress for security. Slip off shoes with socks on so you don’t have to get put-off by bare feet on dirty floors or risk getting someone else’s foot diseases by walking with bare feet. (If you don’t care about foot diseases, go bare, I don’t care.) Limit your layers and put coats, sweaters, scarves in your checked and/or carry-on BEFORE getting in the security line. 3) Know the TSA rules and follow them to the letter whether you “like” them or not. Keep your laptop handy and put in a separate scan tray and don’t try to fudge around on the single quart-sized baggie for liquids. Consolidate – put hand bags, reading material, etc. inside your single carry-on to go through security. You can un-consolidate on the other side. Want less hassle? Check your bags and take as much liquid materials in them as you want. 4) For personal safety, consider your personal long-term exposure to the various forms of radiation used in the non-metal detector archways that are now in use. If you travel 3-6 times per year, probably not an issue. For someone like me, I KNOW going into the airport that if I’m directed to a security line that will put me through something other than the old-fashioned metal detector archways, I’ll immediately exercise my right to “opt-out” with the TSA officer at the detector and have a manual pat-down performed (one that by the TSA regs has some modesty standards of no palms touching sensitive areas (typically only a “swoosh” underneath each breast for women in the breast area). (I know, the newer technology isn’t using x-ray, but, I’ve not seen 10, 20, 30-year studies yet on the effects of long-term exposure to the newer technology on human tissue. My personal CHOICE given my higher level of exposure rates for the amount of travel I do, I don’t go there.) 4) IF you feel violated or in any way uncomfortable during your experience, calmly and professionally ask to speak to the supervisor. Get their name and ID number. If you feel you don’t have time to discuss the matter with them then and there or you don’t receive satisfaction, you have that name and ID number to file a formal complaint via the TSA website and other TSA contact points along your travels. Heck, you can even copy your state and federal government representatives with your complaint. 5) If all of this just sounds like too much for you, then don’t use air travel. I respect your opinion and YOUR choice. If folks want to continue to be reactive rather than proactive, I’m afraid I have very little sympathy. Stop whining and start taking personal action and responsibility. If you don’t speak-up, it definitely will not change.

  • Heather

    I’m so proud that you stuck by your mom. I used to travel a lot for work, but avoid it at all costs now. Some TSA are trained better than others, nevertheless, I’ve been singled out and even had my breast milk searched right after I had a baby and I was pumping. They told me they wanted me to drink my breast milk – no kidding. I almost fell out of my chair.

    The bottom line is – SOME of the TSA WORKERS treat travelers WITH OUT any respect. It’s almost like power trip. They are ill qualified for that type of a position, and use it to demean the public.

  • kathymcn

    Gotta agree with LeeAnneClark here- after reading her “as yet unposted”comment, it may be emphatic, it may be strident, but I don’t see name calling, just ardent defense.

  • cfg

    Just got one of those “enhanced” pat downs because I’m 6 months pregnant and didn’t want to go through the scanner. I offered to go through a standard metal detector instead (which were available, but roped off for some reason) and the answer was “no”. It wasn’t horrible, but it was definitely invasive.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    Some people who are critical of the TSA on this blog also contact their representatives, so I guess they can “whine.”

    Although you have some good suggestions, one can be proactive and still get a bad TSA screener and thereby a bad checkpoint experience. That’s the issue. Even those of us who try to make things as easy for ourselves as possible still are potentially subject to the whims of government employees with too much power and not enough accountability.

    (Please note I see where you talk about making a complaint, but I have no confidence that bad screeners are dealt with properly.)

  • Annapolis2

    I don’t think you understand that there are American communities that are inaccessible without air travel. Alaskans can not generally reach advanced medical care without boarding a plane. You can’t drive, bus, or tram into many American communities. A man was stranded in Hawaii a few months ago because he got placed on the no-fly list while he was there on a layover. He was literally stuck there – he had no options for getting off that island. There is no common carrier boat service between Hawaii and the U.S. (because of an obscure law). http://www.hawaiireporter.com/customs-agent-blocks-politically-outspoken-military-dependent-from-leaving-hawaii-tells-him-hes-on-the-no-fly-list-after-hes-already-arrived-in-hawaii-from-california/123

  • http://flyicarusfly.com/ Fly, Icarus, Fly

    “because you and the Taliban are cut from the same cloth”.

    Surely, someone with an intelligent, solid argument can learn to make their point without disparaging people who disagree. Wasn’t it you who mentioned Godwin’s Law? Ironic…

    And BTW, I didn’t flag your comment. Anyone can flag a comment as inappropriate. It then goes to the moderation panel to discuss what to do with it.

  • David Krueger

    So are the ladies gay and enjoy feeling up the women. What if a guy had a boner? would they have to verify it wasn’t a gun in his pants? Who would verify that? Would they have to feel to see if it was part of his body or something strange in his pants? The mistery widens.

  • David Krueger

    I saw them once patting down an 80 year old lady in a wheelchair with a military man holding a machine gun overseeing the patting down. Don’t you think that’s going overboard? I do.

  • Laughing Skeptic

    If every passenger who missed thier plane because of TSA filed a tortious interference lawsuit in small claims court requesting treble damages for TSA’s legal interference in the contract of the ticket the passenger is holding, their behavior would change. Not for the reasons we want, but in reaction to onslaught of paperwork their attorneys won’t be able to manage. The TSA’s lawyers could not possibly keep up with all the complaints and some of the small claim court judges would provide default judgements that TSA’s attorneys would then have to appeal. The winner of judgements that fall through the cracks can show up at the airport with a sheriff in tow to claim a reasonable amount of TSA property, say one of their cars.

  • EdB

    Problem with this is I believe the TSA has immunity from lawsuits unless the government agrees they should be sued. So even if you were able to get it through Small Claims and get a default judgement, it would be dismissed and you would never be allowed to collect.

  • EdB

    You confuse this PRIVATE board with the government. You have no rights of free speech on a private board.

  • Daisiemae

    It doesn’t necessarily have to be sexual fulfillment that drives them. Most sexual crimes are more about humiliation and degradation of the victims than sexual pleasure.

    These female screeners (not ladies by any definition of the word) do not have to be gay. Their pleasure can be totally derived from the suffering and misery of their victims. Simply holding that kind of power over helpless, vulnerable people gives them a very sick high.

    The same holds true for the male predators working for TSA. It’s not all about sex…it’s about using sexual humiliation to give themselves a feeling of power over people who can do nothing to defend themselves.

  • PsyGuy

    I just wish they would give the TS handcuffs, guns and arrest powers. Then everyone would just keep their mouth shut, go through the scanner, so I can get on the plane.

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    In other words, bend over and spread ‘em.

  • cheyennecowboy

    This is exactly why, after being in the airline business for 35 years, I choose to drive. I just simply don’t like being touched by some TSA pervert that wants to “touch my junk,” as the gentleman from SAN said so tactfully.

  • Kirsten Tynan

    I have been opted out consistently over several flights. When asked if any part of my body is sensitive, I typically reply firmly that I don’t like to be molested. I have commented that if the screener were doing what she were doing to me in any other context than as a federal employee, she would be arrested for it and become a convicted felon. I tweet the names of any TSA employee (listed on their badge) who molests me (name and shame). I have done this when going to and returning from a job interview, a wedding, a funeral, and a vacation. So far I have not missed a flight. I just make sure to get there very early so there is plenty of time for this hooha to take place.

  • Linda

    What kills me is that these machines don’t seem to be very accurate anyhow. At least twice in the last year, after going through the scanner, I was stopped by a TSA agent who patted down a very specific area of me (two different areas), maybe a few square inches, because the machine told her there was something suspicious there. In both cases there was absolutely nothing – no jewelry, nothing in my pocket, no bruise or tumor or oddity of physiology, nothing. If the machine can see something that’s not there, who’s to say it couldn’t miss something that WAS there? We pay gazillions for these things and they do nothing but make us crazy, and they don’t even work right?

  • Linda

    The bus boycotters had an alternate way to get to work. If I want to travel to Europe or other distant points, I must get on an airplane. I enjoy foreign travel and I’m not going to give it up. I detest the TSA and their Nazi tactics but I see no choice at the present but to put up with them. And there are enough like me, not to mention business travelers whose livelihood depends on air travel, that boycott is just not a viable hope for changing the system at this time, sad but true.

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    Linda, as I’ve said till I’m blue in the face, there are many ways to resist, not just one. Facial color redux, I’ve never suggested people stop flying for all eternity. A few months, and we’d bring the airlines to their knees. Hell, they almost went belly-up in just two weeks after 9/11. I’ve written about this extensively:
    http://tsanewsblog.com/5431/news/de-profundis-clamavi-or-why-we-can-talk-till-were-blue-in-the-face-but-until-we-put-our-money-where-our-mouth-is-we-wont-get-rid-of-the-tsa/

    I don’t think that two to six months of sacrifice is too much to ask.

    And I, too, love to travel and have had to give up almost all of it. Though I am taking the QM2 to Europe this year and flying back — on the airlines’ dime, not mine — because there are no blue-shirted thugs on the QM2 or at European airports.

  • Benji

    Really, a “machine gun”? Do you have pictures? Do you know how heavy a machine gun is? The extremely heavy weight of a machine gun makes it unlikely that someone would stand somewhere holding it. They are meant to be put down and shot, not fired from the shoulder or hip.