Man verses machine. This is the choice American flyers now have to face when they arrive at an airport’s security checkpoint. On October 29 the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) put their new screening policies into action. Gone are the days when metal-detectors are sufficient to hold off terrorist attacks and prevent dangerous items from coming aboard planes. As Nick Kimball, TSA spokesperson, claims, “in an era of plastics-based explosives, metal detectors aren’t sufficient” (Dailey). The TSA has instituted new scanner machines that use backscatter x-ray technology, which allows them to see each passenger’s naked body (albeit, semi-blurrily). There are also many concerns that this new x-ray technology could have harmful health effects. Furthermore, if you object to going through this new scanner, whether for privacy or health concerns, you are forced to undergo a thorough “pat-down” by a TSA official. This pat down is not like it predecessor, where a metal scanner is simply run over the curves of your body—this new “enhanced” pat-down essentially involves being groped by a TSA official, as they grab and run their hands across your genitals and other sensitive areas. In this paper I will show how these new security measures relate to Marilyn Frye’s idea of being caught in a “double bind” or being “caged in.” The new airport screening policies and the stress of airport travel combine to put people in situations where any choice they make has pitfalls and is uncomfortable for them.
There are currently 385 backscatter x-ray scanners in action in 68 airports across the country (Dailey) and this number is expected to rise to 1,000 by 2011 (Altman). These scanners operate as follows: “low-intensity radiation is absorbed a few millimeters into your skin and then reflected back, creating a reasonably accurate contour image of your body and anything else underneath your clothes” (Park). There are many causes for concern with these new scanners, one of which is the concern of the possible health effects of this radiation. While the TSA, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology have informed worried fliers that the amount of radiation from the scanner is “negligible” and that they absorb much more radiation from a simple chest x-ray and airplane travel, itself. After conducting multiples measurements, the FDA issued the following statement: “[w]e are confident that full-body-X-ray security products and practices do not pose a significant risk to the public health” (Park). It is disconcerting that they simply claimed that the scanner does not pose “significant” risk—this word choice certainly leaves the door open for some type of danger. Despite these administrations’ assurance of the scanner’s safety, many scientists still have their concerns, as they believe that the government has miscalculated the amount of radiation absorbed by the skin (MacAdam). If scientists and researchers are still unsure of the technology’s safety, it is reasonable for us, the public, to still have some reservations about passing through the scanner.
Other causes for complaint concerning the new scanner center around privacy issues. Many people have voiced their concerns and discomfort with the idea that the scanners allow the TSA to see their unclothed body. While the TSA insists that the pictures are automatically deleted after each passenger and that the screeners never see the passenger and the agents (who are in contact with the passenger) never see the pictures (Dailey), many are still very uncomfortable with the situation, and who is the TSA to tell them that they should not be? These privacy issues are speculated to be particularly a concern with past rape or sexual assault victims. After having such a horrific and scarring experience, I would imagine it would be difficult to be at ease with a stranger being able to see your naked body, even if this image is blurry and is being used for the sake of airplane safety. As Shannon Lambert, founder of the Pandora Project (a nonprofit organization, which offers support and information to rape and sexual assault victims) claims, “[w]e’ve had a number of survivors who have had their pictures taken and put online. So for them, even though [the TSA photo is] deleted, even if the person is in the other room, the idea that the photo’s being taken can be difficult to handle” (Dailey).
Thus, you can see that there are many possible reasons why someone may be hesitant about walking through these new airport scanners. The TSA, to an extent, recognizes these concerns, and therefore gives fliers the option of undergoing a thorough pat-down instead. As mentioned previously, this pat-down is very aggressive and invasive. As one frequent flier claimed, “[i]t was a horrifying experience. I was touched in my private parts, in my genital area, without consent and without warning” (Dailey). Just like going through the x-ray scanner, these new pat-downs can be especially upsetting and uncomfortable for rape and sexual assault survivors. As Kate Dailey of Newsweek claims, “the new screening rules—or just the threat of these rules—present a very real danger” to these people. Many victims find it very difficult to have their body touched by others after their horrific experiences—“a lot of survivors do not want to be in positions where they’re vulnerable. They put up defenses so that they can be in control of their body” (Dailey). In the case of this kind of pat-down, this control is being grossly violated, and as Dailey claims, the result can be “more than hurt feelings,” as “there’s a physical reaction associated with a triggering incident.” Jennifer Marsh, director of the National Sexual Assault Hotline for the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network, asserts that these invasive pat-downs “could lead to a person shutting down and becoming noncommunicative, it could result in a person becoming emotionally upset, it could trigger flashbacks, not just the thoughts and feelings they experienced, but perhaps other sensory experiences” (Dailey). One rape survivor recounted her traumatic feelings during her pat-down experience: “I started crying. It was so intimate, so horrible. I feel like I was being raped” (Dailey). These pat-downs have proven to be extremely uncomfortable and troublesome for many other people. For instance, one breast-cancer survivor was asked to remove her prosthetic breast, while a bladder-cancer survivor had his urostomy bag (used to hold urine) burst when a TSA agent disregarded his warnings.
Now you might be beginning to see how people may feel “caged in” by the new airport security practices. A “double-bind,” as defined by Marilyn Frye, is a situation “in which options are reduced to a very few and all of them expose one to penalty, censure, or deprivation” (Frye). In the case of airport security, people are being forced to choose between two options, both of which might very well be uncomfortable and distressing for them. As Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's legislative office, claims, “[n]obody should be forced to choose between naked scans and groping by strangers in order to keep our airports safe” (Dailey). Furthermore, is it really just that people should have to surrender their right to fly if they refuse to undergo either of these screening procedures? Should they be punished because these procedures cause them deep discomfort and pain? The fact that they are punished shows how they are caught in a double-bind, in which “[y]ou can’t win. You are caught in a bind, caught between systematically related pressures” (Frye). Sometimes fliers do not even get the choice of which security procedure they would like to go through: many are randomly selected for search and must undergo a pat-down, and whenever the scanner cannot capture a good image on the first try (which happens more often than you would think), the passenger is compelled to receive a pat-down (Dailey).
Lambert and Marsh both believe that the negative reactions of many rape and sexual abuse survivors—as well as people in general who are highly uncomfortable with the new security procedures—to either pat-downs or the scanners could be potentially alleviated if TSA agents were better trained, communicated more clearly with fliers, and if relaxation exercises and therapy were performed prior to the screening procedures (Dailey). Unfortunately, as Kate Dailey points out, such exercises and therapy are not exactly realistic for the hectic airport scene. Wendy Maltz, author of guidebook for sexual abuse survivors, describes the intense stress people face in airports and how it is not conducive to a calm mentality: “[e]verything’s happening so fast, there’s a lot of pressure, a lot of people expecting you to, don’t take too long, don’t demand special privileges, don’t ask questions. You have to catch your plane. You don’t have the opportunity to employ techniques that could enhance a sense of calm” (Dailey). These pressures magnify the trauma that many may experience in this new screening process. Once again, Frye would describe this experience as being caged in: “all avenues in every direction, are blocked or booby trapped”—a situation which “catch[es] one between and among them [forces and barriers] and restrict[s] or penalize[s] motion in any direction” (Frye). If, for instance, you are not comfortable with having a pat-down performed in public, you can ask to have it done in private in a side-room. However, when are you frantically rushing to make your flight, this may not be a viable option since it undoubtedly takes more time. If fliers are uneasy about the scanner and the pat-down, and they want to find a way to make themselves feel more comfortable—whether it be through some type of relaxation exercise, questions for the TSA, private pat-downs, or simply calming themselves—they are unlikely to be able to do so due to the stress of the airport, the frazzled states of mind it often produces, and the self-consciousness that could derail people from asking too many questions or requesting special privileges, which slow down the security lines. Thus, for many, it is likely that any choice they make will have its pitfalls.
The birdcage analogy that Frye uses in her writing to discuss the double-binds women face, can easily be translated to people’s experience with the new airport security. As Frye claims, “[i]t is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon.” In this same way, the x-ray scanner, invasive pat-down or airport pressures by themselves do not cage people in, but when they are all working in conjunction, they can force people to suffer in some way. Just as the cage prohibits the bird from flight, if someone chooses not to undergo the discomfort and anxiety that these screening procedures can invoke, he or she too will be prohibited from flight.
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