Week 18 Review: What I Have in my Pants is an Issue of National Security?

Security checkpoint at Seattle Tacoma (SeaTac)...
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Gotta say, Fun Month so far hasn’t been incredibly fun. Not only is the air quality still poor enough to keep me feeling icky, but I’ve been rather over-involved in thoughts about airport security.

I’m not the most enthusiastic flyer in the best of times. I don’t like being enclosed in a metal tube miles above the earth. I don’t like doing things that could result in me or my children or really anyone in my vicinity vomiting. I don’t like feeling the disorientation that results from being so quickly in a different time zone or an area of the country with totally different geography. I don’t like being out of control.

This is a rather ironic reaction for a woman whose father was a RIO in F-14 fighter jets for her entire childhood.

Up to now, the thing that has kept me going as I fly about the country is knowing what to expect. I don’t mind the quart-bag thing or the putting my shoes through the x-ray machine or even needing to buy overpriced water that tastes like plastic once I get through security. I look up the airports I’m going to and find out where their restrooms are. I learn about the type of jet we’ll be riding in and where our seats are within that jet. I pack enough food to last us in case we’re somehow laid over in a remote location for a week or more. I like it this way.

I’ve recently learned that the term for this is “defensive pessimism.” In David Rakoff’s Half Empty, he writes about his interview with Julie Norem, author of The Positive Power of Negative Thinking. Norem’s book explains the distinction between defensive pessimism and dispositional pessimism. As Rakoff writes,

“Both dispositional and defensive pessimists face life with that same negative prediction: ‘This [insert impending experience, encounter, endeavor here] will be a disaster.’ But where the dispositional pessimist sees that gloomy picture as a verdict and pretext to return to or simply remain in bed, the defensive pessimist uses it as the first of a three-step process: 1) the a priori lowered expectations (the previously mentioned presentiment of disaster) are followed by 2) a detailed breakdown of the situation (the ‘this will suck because…’ stage), wherein one envisions the specific ways in which the calamity will take shape. A worst-case scenario painted in as much detail as possible. The process culminates in 3) coming up with the various responses and remedies to each possible misstep along the way…Defensive pessimism is about sweating the small stuff, being prepared for contingencies like some neurotic Jewish Boy Scout, and in so doing, not letting oneself be crippled by fear.”

You know what’s not conducive to this process? TSA security measures that are meant to keep the terrorists guessing.

We’re supposed to travel to Florida to visit my in-laws and my grandparents this February. We’ve not yet bought our tickets because I cannot adequately prepare for the trip because I don’t have a clue what to expect in the airport security line.

I’m not comfortable sending my children through the backscatter x-ray machine (also known as the AIT). Even though it has been approved by the FDA, I’ve read a few things that give me pause, most notably this letter from scientists at the University of California at San Francisco to Dr John Holdren, the President’s Science and Technology assistant. I’ve looked around the internet and have so far not been able to find a response from Dr Holdren or from the White House about this letter, even though it was sent last April. In my mind, the AIT is not an acceptable risk for my children.

OK, so I’ll opt out. It’s a free country. I can still do that. Ah, but opting out may or may not be the same as opting in to the “enhanced pat-down.” Some of the people my husband and I have spoken with have looked at us like we were nuts when we’ve asked about the enhanced pat-downs. In their recent airline travels, nothing’s been different. Others have told about their ten-month-old baby being patted down. Still others have dutifully gone through the AIT and still been patted down. As one friend who experienced the New And Improved Pat-Down put it, “I feel like they should just be a little more thorough and call it a screening for breast and testicular cancer.” Then there’s the guy I spoke to whose friend works for the TSA. His friend, this man says, has been instructed to tell anyone filming or photographing pat-downs for their own safety to turn off their recording devices. As if a terrorist who’s looking to find out about airport security couldn’t just get a ticket and go through security themselves. Really, who is this supposed to protect?

The non-specific responses given to reporters’ questions at Robert Gibbs’ press briefing on November 22, 2010, don’t give me much comfort. For example:

Q    You’re a parent.  The President is a father.  There are a lot of parents out there whose children have been subjected to pat-downs, and they’ve been very upset by it.  There have been individuals with medical conditions who have been forced into humiliating situations.  This is evolution?

MR. GIBBS:  No, I think it’s important to understand that anybody under 12 goes through something much more modified.  I would say, first and foremost — and I think if the TSA Administrator was here, he would say this to you as well — has all of this been done perfectly?  No.  If somebody feels as if they have been unduly subjected to something that they find to be far more invasive than the line of convenience and security, they should speak to a TSA representative at the airport.

I don’t find Gibbs’ vague assertion that “anybody under 12 goes through something much more modified” to be helpful in allaying my fears. What exactly does that mean, anyway? And “speak to a TSA representative at the airport”? Um, I thought that if you made a fuss you could be, at best, not allowed through security and therefore not allowed to fly, or, at worst, imprisoned. I suppose sometime during that process you’d get to speak to a TSA representative at the airport, but is that before or after they separate you from your children?

I refuse to allow my five-year-old daughter to be touched by a stranger anywhere, but most especially in her “bathing suit areas.” I’ve spent the past five years telling my daughter that no one—no one—is allowed to touch her without her permission. We’ve spent an hour or more at a doctor’s visit waiting until she felt comfortable enough with the practitioner to allow him or her to examine her. If she refuses, I make a policy of not pushing it. If I make an exception for the TSA, what is this telling her? That her bodily integrity is important unless someone’s really emphatic about it? And I’m pretty certain the TSA isn’t going to give her five minutes much less an hour to give her consent to be touched.

All this is a long-winded way of saying that the prospect of air travel in the coming months has put me into a tailspin of anxiety (no pun intended). I’ve looked into taking the train, but four days in a cramped railroad car with my two children doesn’t sound all that appealing. Plus, I’ve never traveled by train, so I’d have a lot of research to do to prepare for all of the contingencies of traveling by rail.

I’ve even looked into taking a road trip, stopping along the way to visit with friends across the country who we’ve not seen in years because we usually fly over their houses on our way to somewhere else. But then, the risks of car travel are firmly rooted in my brain, as well. The thought of three twelve-hour days in a car with my kids in the middle of nowhere doesn’t do much to decrease my anxiety level. And any travel besides air travel would be sans husband since he can’t take off three weeks to visit family for a week and would be flying to meet us in Florida.

I know I’ll figure out a course of action, and I hope it’s one that won’t make me too unpopular with my in-laws and my grandparents.

For another parent’s take on this situation, visit this post on bearing blog. I’m not sure I have the cajones to follow the course of action she describes, but I appreciate the idea behind it. And I appreciate that someone else is as freaked out about this situation as I am.

10 Replies to “Week 18 Review: What I Have in my Pants is an Issue of National Security?”

  1. The thing that gets me about the age-12 cutoff is “Like I should feel *better* that you have someone groping my pubescent sons and daughters more firmly than my pre-pubescent sons and daughters.”

    And you know, they aren’t background checking these people for sexual predator history.


    1. Seriously. As nervous as I am about flying with my five-year-old, the idea of her as a, say, fifteen-year-old going through this just makes me feel ill.


  2. you just summed up my flying fears perfectly. we fly just before xmas to FL & I’m terrified they’ll ask my kids to go through this, which honestly I am NOT comfortable with. AT ALL. I just keep thinking “please please let us not be selected for all that!” wish us luck…


    1. At least I don’t have anyone over the age of 12. I don’t envy you your situation, and I will definitely be wishing you all luck. The advice that we keep getting is, “Don’t set off the metal detector.” We’ll probably end up flying, and when we do, I think we’ll all be wearing stretch pants and tank tops when we go through security, hopefully obviating the need for a pat-down of any sort. My husband will look especially cute dressed like that, too. High kicks!


  3. I’m not sure I have the cajones either, frankly, but I hope I can work them up before the next time I fly.

    And I’m 100% serious about not making their job any more pleasant than it has to be. As far as I am concerned, every TSA groper should resign rather than do what they are doing. I hope they all hate their jobs a lot.


    1. Well, if either of us has the cajones, I suppose they’ll find it out if they go to pat us down. And from what the guy I talked to this weekend said, his TSA agent friend is really not enjoying his role as “bad guy” these days. The new policy seems to be setting the stage for a great deal of animosity between the traveling public and the TSA agents, which I can’t imagine will really help us be safer in the air.


  4. You can take empty water bottles through security and then fill them from fountains on the other side. That’s what we always do because I don’t like bottled water or paying for it!

    BTW – a pile of peanut butter & jelly sandwiches = ok, a jar of peanut butter or a jar of jelly = not ok. Where’s the logic, people?!


    1. If the security plan were logical, the terrorists would already have won. (We do that same thing with the water bottles,but I’m always afraid we’re going to run out so I always buy bottled water, too.)


  5. i’m completely freaked out and i don’t know what to do either. . . we fly ALL THE TIME. . . thankfully they didn’t force ANY of this until about ten minutes after our last flight. all i had to do was take airi out of the mei tai if i didn’t want to go through the “new” machines. . . we don’t fly until the first week of march, i hope YOU have a solution before then so I can feel more confident in my own decision making (i also kind of hope that things “calm” down a bit between now and then)


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