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


Like 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 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.

  • BobChi

    I’m not sure speaking up at the airport will actually help anybody. The only group that can rein in the TSA is the Congress and they’re too intimidated for the same reasons passengers are, besides the fact they’re dysfunctional anyway. It’s very frustrating that it has come to this.

  • KCFluff

    A big problem about protesting this whole procedure while you’re there is that it is an expensive place/way to protest in that you have to have an airline ticket in hand to be in that position. While you may want to complain and/or protest, you also don’t want to miss your plane; you’re there because you want to get somewhere and the TSA security theater is just something you have to endure. If you refuse to go along, chances are you will miss your plane and not get to your destination. Other than the thousands of “sheeple” who say “Just so we’re safe,” I think the thought of missing one’s flight is what keeps most from protesting.

  • AKFlyer

    You’re right that this is my main fear — that and somehow getting on the no-fly list, which would make it impossible for me to do my job or visit my family (I live in Alaska). But I’ve always opted-out and have never missed my plane as a result. I believe that calmly but clearly asserting my rights, including telling the TSA agent that she is touching my breasts and genitals without my permission, lets the TSA know I mean business and that I’m the kind of passenger that is going to make them look very bad if they try to do anything punitive to me. Probably doesn’t hurt that I’m a tiny, almost 60-year old white woman, because they are going to look pretty silly treating me like a terrorists (not that this hasn’t been tried on other equally low-risk people).

    When I was young and didn’t know any better, I had my wallet taken from my shopping basket while my back was turned. I confronted the thief and calmly but assertively ordered him to give it back. He did! Sometimes behaving rationally but assertively lets the people around you know you are not to be messed with. That’s the best form of protest, IMHO — consistently putting the TSA on the defensive by reminding them that you are not a terrorist, have not done anything wrong, and do not want your junk touched.

  • mike

    I am assuming that most of these americans who are in favor of cavity searches think that it has something to do with teeth otherwise why would they even think that cavity searches would be okay?

  • DCTA

    You k now, I’ve had the “pat down” once after the body scan (I had worn a blouse with sequins on it and that came across as “metal”). Honest to G-d, it simply was no big deal, The female TSA Agent came over, told me why she had to pat me down, told me front up that she did not wish me to feel “violated” and proceeded quickly and professionally. the “pat down” around the breasts was a quick “slide” down the sides and barely a touch underneath. I didn’t feel violated and I didn’t see it as big deal. NOONE else seemed to be aware in the hustle and bustle of getting shoes off, lap tops out, picking up bags off the conveyor. Now my husband on the other hand, because he has an implanted defibrillator hates the entire process but prefers going through the body scanner as he never gets a full pat down (like when he couldn’t go through the magnotometer) – he tells them ahead about the defibrillator and when he comes outs, the just pat that area and he’s done.

  • Carchar

    Unfortunately, not all agents are equal. Some are on a power trip and really do go overboard. So far, I’ve only experienced the occasional pat-down, and a respectful one at that. I have no doubt that there are many, many people who have been seriously violated.

  • AKFlyer

    Yep. I’ve had hundreds of “pat” downs at this point. One agent became obsessed with my lower ribcage — I guess she’d never felt the lower front ribs of a middle-aged woman before (I weigh 108#) and it took her a while to finally realize I wasn’t packing. Her probing was starting to feel really annoying, like it might cause bruising. Many other agents have karate-chopped my vulva with needless force. I say “was hitting my vulva so hard with the side of your hand really necessary? It hurt!” because saying nothing only lets them maintain the fiction that what they’re doing is OK. There are security cameras at checkpoints and I want to be on the record as not being OK with that kind of force.

    No one can humiliate you without your permission.

  • wprdiver

    That was my first thought about 1/3 of pax. agreeing to CAVITY search- they were interpreting that as DENTAL (cavity), for most don’t know the word in relation to other body parts!.

  • DCTA

    I certainly don’t believe that rape victims are “asking for it” and that is really, really out of line. And kind of disgusting actually. And once again, since it seems you just “skim”, I invite you to re-read.

  • Purple Flyer

    You may feel that you did not get “nasty” but you did. You’ll note that more than one person told you that it was out of line, and possibly several others thought so but did not want to say anything. It must be terrible to live your life so angry that every time you fly (even for leisure) you start out in a bad mood. What a shame.

  • Metatron

    How do you expect the screeners to get their jollies unless you submit to their caresses? Gee whiz!!!

  • AKFlyer

    I’ve never gone through a whole body imaging machine. I assert my rights, loudly, every time I present for screening. If a TSA agent quizzes me about why I don’t want WBI screening, I tell them I don’t need a reason — I opt out because I have the right to opt out, a right they don’t have the ability to withhold if they don’t approve of my reason. I insist on keeping my belongings in sight at all times and refuse to move to another area until I see that they have all been collected off the X-ray machine belt. I insist on being screened in front of witnesses (fellow travelers), not hustled conveniently out of sight. When asked if I have sensitive areas, I say “yes” and tell the TSA agent that I don’t like being touched by anyone except my husband or my doctor, and then only voluntarily, on my breasts, buttocks, or vulva. I look the agent in the eye while saying this.

    If everyone did this (OK, males can say “penis and scrotum” instead of “vulva”), I’m sure there would be plenty of eye-rolling among the complacent sheeple, but perhaps some other travelers would be empowered to assert their rights and set the kind of interpersonal boundaries good parents try to teach their children about.

  • Elle Emme

    I’ve never gone through the imaging machines, and have never had a problem with a pat down because I warn the agent doing it that I’m extremely ticklish. As soon as they start the pat down, I start giggling hysterically (can’t help it!) and that will either make the agent laugh and lighten the mood, or they’re embarrassed and want to get through the rest of the pat down quickly.

  • MeanMeosh

    I try to stay out of these TSA conversations on Chris’s blog because they inevitably devolve into a shouting match. It seems to me like there are two extremes that always show up in the debate:

    1) Those who take Pistole’s and Big Sis’s line about “national security” hook, line, and sinker, and immediately label anyone who questions the TSA’s motives or methods a kook that needs to be referred to the House Select Committee on Un-American Activities.

    2) Those who believe that anyone who refuses to opt-out or attempt to show-up the TSA are unpatriotic sheeple that deserve the abuse they get. Furthermore, anyone who tries to provide an example of a TSA agent that wasn’t abusive either made it up, is denying that any abuses exist, and is a shill for the TSA that should be belittled and publicly flogged. (And I’m sorry to pick on you, AKFlyer, but that last comment to DCTA about rape is exactly what I’m talking about here).

    For those of you who always opt-out and are vocal to the agent about your displeasure about the process, good for you. I’m glad you have the courage to do it. But it’s also important to understand that not everybody does, and that doesn’t automatically make them “sheeple”.. People go through the scanners or submit to the pat-downs (which I frankly find far more troublesome than the scanners) for different reasons. Some don’t like the process, but are too afraid to say anything because they’re just not comfortable to do so. Others think they’ll miss their flight, and really can’t afford to be late to whatever they’re trying to get to. Others honestly believe the process is good security. Yet others just don’t care.

    Have I ever had a bad experience with the TSA? No. But I believe there have been abuses suffered by others, and that’s wrong, and those screeners should be punished (fat chance of that happening). For the record, I don’t really care about the porno-scanners. I’ll try to evade them if a lane without one exists, but if there is none, I personally find the porno-scanner the lesser of the evils compared to a public groping and just go through it.

    How would I react if I were selected for an “enhanced” pat-down and the TSA agent started getting abusive? No idea, and I hope I never have to find out. It’s also important for all of you to remember that if someone’s never been in that position, you really have no way of knowing how that person will react to a traumatic experience, because everyone does so differently.

    Does the current system need improvement? Absolutely. I especially think the gropes do absolutely nothing to improve security, with the only result a public humiliation for those who are subjected to one.

    Do I have the answers on what would be a better system? Nope. I would start by getting rid of the gropes and improving advanced intelligence-gathering, but beyond that, I’ll leave the details to those that are more qualified.

    Do we accomplish anything when both sides in this debate get into a urinating contest with each other? That’s the one answer I absolutely know to be right – NO, we don’t!

  • AKFlyer

    I don’t think TSA workers should be publicly flogged.

    It is usually not the undertrained TSA worker’s fault that they don’t understand the limits of their authority to detain people, touch them, intimidate them, frighten small children, etc. After all, the TSA is not hiring from the upper echelon of folks with HS diplomas, or even GEDs, and despite the lovely blue shirts, TSA working conditions suck. But we have allowed a system that creates these unacceptable (to me) passenger screening conditions to develop, and at great expense. As the threat of federal sequestration approaches, we’d all do well to remember that overall the number of federal employees has been steadily falling for decades, with the sole exception of DHS/TSA. And those of us who fly a lot are also paying for TSA’s “services” through substantial ticket fees. I am more than ready for DHS to get smart about security and stop fighting the last war, start using tools that narrow the search to likely threats, and stop pretending that it makes any sense for me to have to pay two women to probe my butt cheeks and crotch before I can travel to the another state in my own country.

  • DCTA

    I’m not trying to argue anything of the kind AK. I’m just presenting that not everyone has bad/terrible/humiliating experiences and would probably fall into Mean’s second example. There are certainly TSA agents who go over the line – with that many agents can anyone possibly imagine that there would not be? My experience overall has not been negative. Why don’t you re-read what I wrote.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jim-Loomis/1325916023 Jim Loomis

    We had a full body imaging machine here on Maui … and I loved it! You see, I have had a knee replacement and the metal implant was revealed by the machine, identified instantly by the TSA person in the nearby enclosed booth, and I sailed right on through to my gate. Now, since the fancy machine has been removed thanks to complaints from people who felt violated, I have to go through the standard metal detectors. That’s when my titanium knee sets off all the bells and whistles and I get hauled out of line for a thorough — and I mean THOROUGH — pat-down by the biggest TSA male who happens to be on duty at the moment. There has to be a better way!