The Common Good
February 2011

Groping for Answers at the Airport

by Ed Spivey Jr. | February 2011

As one would predict, many humor writers are taking cheap shots at the new pat-down rules at airports. But at Sojourners we're different.

As one would predict, many humor writers are taking cheap shots at the new pat-down rules at airports. But at Sojourners we're different. Call it maturity, call it patriotism, but we take seriously the security of our national transportation system and would never stoop to tawdry jokes about agents groping strangers. At least not in the first paragraph.

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But now that we're comfortably in the second paragraph, we can [giggle] probe this issue more deeply and [snicker] get to the bottom of it. Frankly, Americans are expressing mixed feelings about the new federal policy of fondling private citizens at airports. Oh sure, this happens on a regular basis in restrooms visited by members of Congress, but to the general public it’s a new experience. On the one hand, the airport pat-down -- in combination with the full-body X-ray scan -- might be the only physical examination you can get without a co-pay.

Security official: "You're free to go, sir, but I'd have that prostate checked out. It's a little enlarged. Of course, that's not surprising for a man your age, but I would still suggest --

Passenger: "OKAY FINE!"

Security official: "Next passenger, please. Now bend your knees, and cough."

Airport pat-downs could also greatly improve American dating practices. No longer would unattached persons have to subject themselves to the sketchy club scene or sign up for dating websites such as eHarmony or MyMotherStillThinksI'mCute.ugh. A security pat-down makes all this unnecessary, and it greatly accelerates the standard social timetable. When somebody bends down in front of you and squeezes your thigh, you're already on, like, the second date.

Adding to the romance of the moment are the unexpectedly amorous words of the security personnel. In carrying out the popular "groin check," agents are required by the TSA (Touch, Squeeze, and Annoy) to use the following official script: "I'll be placing my hand on your hip, my other hand on your inner thigh, slowly moving up and then sliding down. I will be doing this twice."

Who could resist such charm?

On the other hand, critics complain that the new security rules are gross violations of privacy that transform your typical vacation into your typical 14th-century interrogation by Spanish priests, although without the advantage of taking a load off your feet on a rack. Privacy advocates have been particularly outspoken against the full-body scanners, although industry experts have assured us that images taken by the X-ray machines are 100 percent secure, at least until some junior high kid hacks in and posts them on the Internet.

Activists in Germany recently took off their clothes in protest against airport scanners, a dramatic expression of principle that ironically made it easier for security personnel. When you're naked it’s hard to sneak on board guns, bombs, or better pretzels.

In general, I have no problem with public nudity, particularly at airports, where the long security lines make for a pretty boring experience. Having naked protesters run amok just makes the time fly by, not to mention the fun of watching security personnel exercising critical decision-making. (Where does one grab a naked protester?) But these acts of civil disobedience could bring an unexpected awkwardness to airline passengers waiting in line. When the person ahead of you is negotiating the sensitive social landscape of a second date and the passenger behind you is protesting in the nude, it's hard to know where to rest your eyes.

Ed Spivey Jr. is art director of Sojourners. His award-winning book A Hamster is Missing in Washington, D.C. is available at store.sojo.net.

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