Will Saletan of Slate has made a career of suggesting ways that women can compromise their bodily autonomy for the greater good. So, maybe I should take his latest column as a gesture of solidarity. Therein, Saletan argues that we should acquiesce to the new nude backscatter scans because the new genital-groping pat-down is objectively so much worse:
And from the standpoint of dignity, [the National Opt-Out Day activists'] advice is insane. If you opt out of the scan, you'll get a pat-down instead. You'll trade a fast, invisible, intangible, privacy-protected machine inspection for an unpleasant, extended grope. In effect, you'll be telling TSA to touch your junk.
Saletan purports to be an expert on applied ethics, yet he is blind to the sexualized coercion implicit in the "choice" between allowing a stranger in another room to see your naked body vs. having your junk touched. (For the record, I don't support National Opt-Out Day, in part because a lot of its major backers will use any slowdown as pretext to privatize TSA, which is such a complete non sequitur that anyone who even suggests privatization as a cure for junk-probing is insulting your intelligence. Private contractors would enforce the same rules as public employees. Remember how we outsourced interrogation of terrorism suspects overseas? That ended very badly.)
It's all about managing expectations. Homeland Security could have decreed that everyone must pass through the nude scanner. If that had been the edict, TSA would be grappling with even bigger backlash. Ostensibly giving passengers a choice between a scan and a pat-down makes the invasion of privacy seem more acceptable. It gives the passenger the illusion of control. We're so busy playing "scan or grope?" that we forget to ask why we're paying for scanners the TSA can't even justify with a cost-benefit analysis.
Despite what Saletan would have you believe, acquiescence is no guarantee that your junk will be left alone. According to the TSA blog, you will get patted down if you refuse a whole body scan; if you get scanned and something looks unusual; if you set off the metal detector; or at random. How many times have you been called back through the metal detector because of a rivet on your jeans or an aglet on your shoelace?
The metal clips on my mom's fallopian tubes set off airport metal detectors about one out of every 10 times she flies! Until now, it's been a big joke. She just laughs and tells them they've got the thing turned up too high. I hope she won't get groped next time.
Of course the genital pat-down feels more significantly more invasive and degrading to most people than the body scan. That's what makes this whole scenario so profoundly morally objectionable. The point of the new junk-touching protocols is to make the scanners seem attractive by comparison.
The new invasive pat-downs were introduced on Oct. 29, just before the new scanners rolled out in dozens of airports across the country. Homeland Security made the pat-downs worse on purpose. A TSA screener predicted that nobody would opt for a pat-down over a scan "once they figure out what we're going to do [viz junk]."
If the choice were between a standard pat-down and a scan, more people would choose the pat-down. If enough people felt queasy about nude scans, screening would slow, and the scanners would become an expensive boondoggle overnight.
Nobody has even tried to justify across-the-board "enhanced" pat-downs as enhanced security. We're just supposed to assume some magical relationship holds between the touching of junk and the prevention of hijackings. The old protocol was pretty thorough and agents always had the option of pulling people aside for additional screening if the initial frisk turned up anything suspicious.
The threat of groping is the stick the TSA is using to herd us through the nude scanners. What's so objectionable about the program is not just the nude scans, it's the fact that people are being forced to do something that many regard as sexually humiliating with the threat of even greater sexual humiliation. If you believe the TSA propaganda about how the machines don't really show that much, consider the fate of TSA Miami screener Rolando Negrin who was mercilessly teased by his co-workers after they saw his penis during training.
As videographer/protester John "Don't Touch My Junk" Tyner found out when he refused a scan and a pat-down in San Diego, you're not necessarily allowed to leave if you get to the screening area and decide you'd rather skip the whole thing.
The scanners will not save lives. They will only make money for Michael Chertoff's cronies. Check out this Popular Mechanics interview with security consultant Bruce Schneier, the man who coined the term "security theater." According to Schneier, the manufacturers of the scanners admit their technology would not have caught the underwear bomber. "The guys who make the machines have said, "We wouldn't have caught that," he said.
[Image credit: Stargazer95050, Creative Commons.]