to opt out or not to opt out

Reader T. F. writes:

I’ve been hearing a lot in the news about those new TSA backscatter scanners, and I know a lot of people are saying everyone should opt out of using them during the Thanksgiving holiday flight rush. What do you think?

Dear T.F.:

I’m gonna’ quote Jiminy Cricket on this one:

“Always let your conscience be your guide.”

In the end, what you do in this case depends entirely on what you think is more important: standing up for your own personal rights and privileges, giving up some of your rights to ensure “public safety”, and/or your aversion to inconveniencing yourself and others.


There's a lot more to flying this holiday season than just getting on that plane. Image: Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

There are a lot of issues in play that I think you need to consider to make an informed decision on whether or not to opt out of the scanners. Let’s go through them all one by one, shall we?

Having other people see your junk.

Yes, Virginia, you can see someone’s genitals on the images these scanners produce. (In fact, they can see sanitary napkins, too. And possibly tampons.) Furthermore, while they have called the images “skeletal” or “ghost-like”, they’re apparently pretty easy to invert, i.e. make life-like. Some fake news sources are already pretending that TSA employees will treat the images like porn, which, while unlikely, isn’t totally impossible to imagine. Honestly, if someone I’m not dating or married to is going to see my naked body, I’d prefer to get paid for it, thankyouverymuch. And even though the TSA has said it’s impossible to save these images, how much do you really trust them? You could, of course, buy some Flying Pasties to cover yourself up, although nobody is quite sure how the TSA is going to react to this sort of effort, and you’ll probably be subjected to the pat-down anyway, as described below.

Having other people feel up your junk.

If you “opt out” of the TSA scanners, as some groups are urging you to do, you will be subjected to an “enhanced pat down“. So basically, the mandatory nature of these new scanners has subjected all flyers to the classic rock and a hard place conundrum. Even if you do go through the scanners, you may have to participate in one of these pat-downs, which some folks are complaining go too far and are pretty much tantamount to sexual assault. This may be more invasive than having your body displayed on screen for some TSA employee to ogle at will. It also depends on your TSA agent, it seems.

Fear of CANCER.

I find this one to be pretty ridiculous. Apparently, the chances of getting cancer from the backscatter radiation are about 1 in 30 million. In other words, you have a greater chance of the plane crashing for mechanical reasons than of getting ill from the 10 seconds of radiation you’d be exposed to. Still, if you have frail health because of some other infection, the scanners might pose a greater threat to you than others. And lord knows we are exposed to plenty of other cancer-causing agents in our daily lives — why risk it with one more?

Making a political statement about your civil rights.

I think we are currently viewing a historical wonder: it’s one of few times that conservatives and Tea Party groups are in agreement with the ACLU. Opting out of the scanners could be a way of standing up for your civil liberty. You have the right “to be secure in [your] person, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures”. (That’s the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, kiddos.) You have to decide for yourself if you feel that the TSA is engaging in activities that put your liberty at risk, and if your actions are going to have a meaningful effect on challenging those encroachments. Whether you decide to opt out or write to Congress, you may find it in your conscience to say something. As Benjamin Franklin put it: “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” (Motto on the title page of An Historical Review of the Constitution and Government of Pennsylvania. [1759]) Speaking of “temporary safety”…

How much safety you think these procedures provide.

Few people (other than Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano) seem to think these new security measures are keeping us any safer than before, although the TSA has apparently found one or two prohibited items (check out the “Week at a Glance” section at the bottom of the homepage there). If you think these procedures prevent terrorists from hijacking airplanes, then you can probably rightly say that you are sacrificing a little comfort and perhaps a skosh of your liberty to a worthy cause. That’s all up to you, of course.

Delaying other passengers and yourself.

This is where you have to weigh standing up for something you believe in versus inconveniencing others. Yes, all of the current screening options are uncomfortable, but going through the scanners as instructed will save you and everyone around you time and trouble at some point. Yes, it’s stupid that we have to put all our liquids and gels in a Ziploc baggie, and yes, it’s stupid that we have to take off our shoes. But perhaps Thanksgiving Day is not the forum in which you want to make your civil liberties statement. Again, you could always write to Congress. Or start a different movement of your own.

Giving grief to the TSA agents.

They are, despite some complaints to the contrary, just normal human beings doing a job. I know, a common retort to that is, “Yeah, so were the Nazis”. I think if you can compare Nazis to TSA agents, you have some serious issues with degrees of magnitude where evil is concerned, and maybe you deserve a cable TV show, preferably on Fox News. In any case, these TSA folks are people (I happen to know one or two of them), and they don’t want to touch you anymore than you want to be touched. You may find that making their lives miserable is not how you want to be spending your Thanksgiving travel time, and that if you cooperate with them, they can actually be rather pleasant.

After you’ve considered all of these issues, I believe you are ready to make a decision. It may depend on your mood for the day, how long the line is at the airport, and whether or not the guy in front of you chooses to opt out.

However, you may want to consider this final issue:

There’s already plenty of hubbub surrounding this issue. I don’t think you have to worry about the TSA not getting the message because you decide not to opt out. Your own personal qualms are what should go into this decision for you, less than your worries that someone doesn’t know this is a problematic issue.

Not flying this holiday season, but want to participate in the joys of security screening procedures? Playmobil has got you covered. (Thanks, D.A.!)


3 Responses to “to opt out or not to opt out”

  1. 1 Vinnie
    November 23, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    In my personal opinion, if taking pictures of my naked body or feeling up my junk is going to save me from dying in a terrorist attack, I’m all for it. These are the times we live in. I mean is the better alternative not to take such drastic measures and risk dying?

  2. 2 Nobody Special
    November 23, 2010 at 12:41 pm

    I think people should stop using airplanes for terrorist activity, then we wouldn’t have to worry about the problem in the first place.

  3. November 23, 2010 at 3:23 pm

    And what of the person who can’t go through the scanner (wheelchair, or cancer, or pregnant) and has to have the pat-down, but was a victim of sexual abuse or rape … that’s one of the scenarios I’ve seen bandied about in the press.

    I think these measures are ridiculous. I have no intention of flying until these procedures have gotten back to more sane levels.

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