May 15, 2012
Up close and personal with the TSA
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The TSA Web site states: “You should neither be asked to nor agree to lift, remove, or raise any article of clothing to reveal a sensitive area of the body,” and, “Bare or exposed skin should not be touched by the security officer.” Both of these regulations were violated in full view of those in charge. Surely, I thought, this must be an anomaly. Driving home to Pico-Robertson from LAX later that week, I experienced a clash of emotions: anger, sadness, shame, humiliation, regret, fear. I was confused. I had a deep sense of having insisted on the “right” thing, but it had gone unrewarded. I felt punished. I asked myself: What, as both a Jew and a human being, is my responsibility? The simple but complex answer is that I am simply responsible. And as I accepted that responsibility, I became a repository for stories more distressing than my own.
A colleague, his wife and their 7-month-old daughter, Hazel, were flying from Charlotte, N.C., to Providence, R.I., for Thanksgiving in 2010. My friend and his wife discussed refusing the scanner, but considering the difficulty of making a 14-hour car ride with a baby, his wife insisted that they “comply.” Out of respect for his wife’s desire to get home for her first Thanksgiving with her new baby, my friend agreed to undergo whatever invasion of privacy the TSA insisted on. He went through the metal detector after disassembling his daughter’s stroller. While he reassembled it on the other side, the agents asked his wife to remove their daughter’s pink cardigan sweater-vest. The mother complied, and the agent felt Hazel’s little torso, presumably for an explosive device.
When asked how he felt about the pat-down of his baby girl, my friend responded: “I don’t know. I’m still telling the story, which probably gives some indication of how I feel. It’s an unnamed feeling, and I have nothing to compare it to — something having to do with violation of what makes me, and all of us, human. I would prefer to put my daughter on a hundred flights that involved no security check at all to even dreaming about a stranger patting her down for explosives again.”
The next time the family flew, they passed through the metal detectors unmolested. But my colleague will never forget watching the family in front of them: “I watched the passive father, who was watching his 14-year-old daughter with her arms extended and her feet shoulders width apart while a TSA agent, a woman, with disposable plastic gloves felt around the young girl’s waistband. Needless to say, I wish I hadn’t seen it, and I’m glad I didn’t make eye contact with that father.”
It occurs to me that it is one thing to allow one’s own dignity to be violated. It is quite another to watch that dignity being stripped from our children. My friend cannot stop saying to himself: It’s not just another policy. He continues: “I disagree with 90 percent of what the American government turns into law, but I always felt myself emotionally tied to my country — that was never a question for me. Until the thing with Hazel. Now I’m indifferent. I’m a husband, a father, a pseudo-Buddhist-Gnostic-Christian — but the America that my grandpas fought for in World War II — that’s a thing of the past, to me. I’m over it. When the revolutionaries come looking for support, they can count me in.”
I recently taught a class on post-9/11 fiction at Loyola Marymount University, and I took the opportunity to initiate a dialogue about terrorism, security, fear, human rights and ethical responsibility. I recounted my own experience as a starting point. One student, an Orthodox Jewish woman from the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, explained that, because of her modest clothing, each time she flies, she and her children must go through the body-scanner as well as receive pat-downs. She was told once that her skirt was not tight enough. As I listened to her story of being penalized for modesty, my distress was reignited. I realized that with regard to the level of indecency of which the TSA is capable, I had only touched the surface.
Ouriel and Gabrielle Hassan (a Canadian citizen with a green card) are Orthodox Jews living in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. Ouriel’s family is from Egypt. Years ago, Ouriel’s grandfather changed the family’s name from “Hazan” to “Hassan” in an effort to avoid persecution in Egypt. In 2002, Ouriel arrived at LAX on a flight from New York. To his surprise, he was met by two machine-gun-toting soldiers who instructed Ouriel to accompany them. Once in a private room, Ouriel was strip-searched and held for three hours. The items he carried — clothing, Hebrew books, tefillin — were searched meticulously, and he was asked to open his tefillin, which would have destroyed them. When he explained that to the officers, they retracted the order, and, finding no reason to detain him, they released Ouriel with neither apologies nor explanation. He is subjected to scrutiny each time he travels.
Last year before Pesach, he and his wife and their 3-year-old son traveled from Los Angeles to Vancouver. As Ouriel prepared to enter the body-scanner, TSA agents approached Gabrielle and told her that her son, Eliyahu Yosef Hassan, would need to undergo additional screening procedures. She was told to point out Eliyahu’s bags and personal items; being only 3 years old, however, he had no personal items. Eliyahu was then taken from his mother and brought to a special screening area where a large woman roughly “patted” him down, grasping at his genitals and demonstrating indifference to his fearful and hysterical sobs. Gabrielle was prohibited from holding her son’s little hand. Despite TSA regulations that do not permit children to be separated from parents, she was forbidden from standing near him because he might “pass” something to her.
The TSA claimed that “Eliyahu Yosef Hassan” was on a no-fly list. It turns out that the name of the person on the no-fly list is “Yusef Hasan.” Yet little Eliyahu has experienced the traumatizing security screening two additional times. Although the TSA allows people with names similar to those on no-fly lists to apply for special numbers that will alert agents to these similarities and simplify screening processes, Eliyahu is not eligible for this number because he is under 16 years old. Instead, they must be prepared to submit their son to this humiliation. Additionally, TSA agents have withheld from Gabrielle the offer of a private screening room and patted her down in public by putting their hands underneath her skirt and against her legs, as well as lifting her clothing and running their hands underneath the underwire of her bra. Women, particularly those who dress modestly for religious reasons, are being publically humiliated, and their fathers, husbands and brothers must often deal with guilt stemming from their inability to protect their loved ones from degradation.
These are not the experiences of all travelers. But it is difficult to justify even one small child being violated by procedures implemented on the basis of their capacity to protect us from acts of terrorism. Children are being touched in a way that would be illegal anywhere outside of the gray zone of the TSA screening area. In a society that has, given the countless sexual abuse scandals involving priests, coaches and others in positions of authority, we are obsessed with protecting our children from physical and sexual abuse. Yet we give random people in TSA uniforms the authority to touch our children in any way they see fit — all in the name of safer skies. The past years have shown us that people in positions of power often violate children. But our fear of terrorism has become greater than our fear of child abuse, and we have offered up the dignity of our children in exchange for the illusion that we are safer because of it.
Some suggest that if one finds pat-downs to be inappropriate, he or she should not resist the technology that is designed to detect the materials sought through pat-downs. But a number of experts in the field remind us that these machines make mistakes. Agents testing the system have successfully passed through body-scanners with weapons. And they have warned of the possibility of overdose. One glitch could cause a body-scanner to emit an overdose of radiation. But just how common are errors? Apparently the TSA screeners at LAX have grown accustomed to them.
Jaime Eliezer Karas recently declined the body-scan at LAX, chose the pat-down, and watched the agent insert the piece of fabric into the machine that detects traces of explosive material. According to Karas: “We stood there in silence, both knowing everything was almost over. Suddenly, the machine displayed a message: ‘EXPLOSIVES DETECTED.’ The TSA agent did not flinch. As if in a previously choreographed sequence, he glided over to the next machine and was replaced by another agent.” Karas decided to inquire about what was wrong, and the second TSA employee replied that the cloth came up as having detected explosives, and that he was scanning it again at the next machine. The agent — who works for the same organization that terrorizes little Eliyahu Hassan every time he flies — was unconcerned by this information. The second machine did not think that Karas was carrying explosives, and he was given clearance to proceed toward the gates. Indeed, Karas carried no explosives. But the point is the inability of the technology to accurately assess the situation 100 percent of the time.
Many of us have forgotten how to be mindful. Are the deep costs to human dignity worth the ambiguous outcomes — piles of confiscated toothpaste and cupcakes amid optimistic claims that we are now safer? I continue to ask myself what, exactly, is my responsibility? How can I contribute to making a positive and meaningful change?
Much like the inconsistency in how TSA regulations are carried out, the attitudes of TSA members vary. Some TSA agents are snide and aggressive. One woman, who recently conducted my pat-down in Seattle, was different. As she asked me if I had ever experienced the procedure, the look on my face told her I had. I opened my mouth to speak, but I had no words and I knew somehow that my face was telling the stories I could not speak in that moment. She looked at me intently, lowered her gaze and said, “I know. I’m sorry. It’s awful. You shouldn’t have to ... “ Her voice trailed off and she looked back up at me, as if asking for a pardon for what she was about to do.
Perhaps I was more of a revolutionary in this moment, when I smiled and said, “Thank you. Thank you for saying that.” There was something in her acknowledgment of her complicity in something indecent and undeserved that moved me. Her acknowledgment of how we were both, in that moment, being shamed as women, as citizens, and as human beings was an opening: an unspoken dialogue.
Responsibility begins with awareness and, one day, hopefully, ends with action.
The TSA claims that “since imaging technology has been deployed at airports, more than 99 percent of passengers choose to be screened by this technology over alternative screening procedures.” Perhaps we should think carefully about why people “choose” radiation over public humiliation — or perhaps there’s not much to think about there.
Monica Osborne is a professor of Jewish literature and culture and has written for The New Republic, Tikkun, Jewcy.com and other publications.
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