I have now been molested by the TSA three times. That’s three more times than the government had any business touching me in ways appropriate only for a boyfriend or gynecologist, but apparently it was possible to raise the bar for inexcusability even further, as this latest occasion showed.
Admittedly, this particular situation is probably not one the TSA often sees. I had just been dropped off at JFK Terminal 7 and was trying to attach a box to a suitcase with a bungee cord, when the bungee cord suddenly snapped, flew up, and hit me just above my eye. Hard. I am probably very lucky it didn’t take out my eye, but in those first moments afterward I wasn’t entirely sure it hadn’t. My vision was blurred and the swelling began immediately. I needed ice, and I needed it now.
Unfortunately Terminal 7 is in the hinterlands of the airport. Nothing is nearby, and inside there were no signs of ice-vending retail establishments. The check-in counter also had nothing. My only option was to go to the gates’ area where there was a food court. Fortunately there was no line to show the TSA my ID. And no line to send my bags through the x-ray machine. And no line to pass through the metal detector. It would only be a few moments before I could get my ice.
But it wasn’t. Because as soon as I started to step forward to the metal detector a TSA agent informed me I’d been selected to pass through the x-ray machine. You know, the x-ray machines that bombard you with radiation and expose naked pictures of you to others. There’s no way in hell I will subject myself to those — there’s no way in hell ANYONE should — but this means that my only alternative is to subject myself to the sexual assault of the “enhanced pat down.”
Perhaps I am lucky, but I had never been the victim of a sexual assault. At least not until last November when I was assaulted by a TSA agent at LAX. I could have lived my entire life without knowing what it feels like to be violated, to have a complete stranger touch my crotch, and to be so completely powerless to stop it. But instead of never knowing what that might feel like, now I can never forget how it does.
My heart sank as I realized I was yet again going to be molested in order to fly. But the dismay quickly gave way to panic. For as bad as the “enhanced pat down” was going to be, it presented a new problem: delay. I needed ice, I needed it right now, and enduring this assault was going to take time my swelling eye could not afford to wait.
“If you’re going to do this to me, I need ice first,” I said, pointing to my brow. “I need ice, I need it now, and if you aren’t going to let me get it, you need to give it to me.”
The agent refused. “We need to do this first.”
“No,” I said, increasingly panicked. “I need medical care. And if you aren’t going to let me get it, you need to provide it.”
He still refused.
“Your detainment of me is negatively affecting my health!” Fury, panic, fear, desperation began to flood over me, unstoppably. I started shaking and crying. “I said you could do this to me!” alluding to the molestation, for which my consent was meaningless, since extracting it as a condition of flying is the very definition of extracting consent by duress.
“All I asked for was an ice pack first!”
I was sure they had one — what workplace doesn’t have a first aid kit nearby? And sure enough, eventually another agent provided one. But it was over 5 minutes later (I had looked at my watch), and it took an argument to get it. From a different agent – one whose sense of humanity had not been completely overwritten by the police powers she’d been granted.
In the TSA’s defense, as I mentioned above, it might not have expected someone with an acute injury to appear before them. Presumably few people, if any, nearly blind themselves with their luggage upon arrival at the airport. But even if I am the only person who ever had, or ever will have, that problem it does not change the equation: I was a free person being detained, without probable cause, by the government. If the government was going to deprive me of my right to preserve my health and well-being, then it needed to. In preventing my free movement it had taken on that duty, and it was failing to fulfill it.
And that failure runs completely counter to the TSA’s purported mission. Supposedly this whole exercise is to preserve the public from POTENTIAL harm. Here was a member of the public with ACTUAL harm, and the TSA only made it worse.
After the one agent finally gave me an ice pack I sat there outside the security gates for several minutes, a quivering, crying mess until I calmed down. Perhaps I should be ashamed at crying in public, but I’m not. At all. It was an honest emotion. I’d had a long, hard week, emotionally and physically fatiguing, which had now been punctuated with a possibly severe eye injury worsening by the moment by this wrongful detainment, and on top of all that I now had a sexual assault to look forward to. “We know why you fly,” one airline advertises. Well, the TSA should know that sometimes people fly in a good mood and sometimes a really bad one. They stand in the way of everyone, no matter how fragile, and they can’t expect to do so without consequence.
But I think they do. I think the TSA expects to get away with whatever it wants and desperately hopes that no one ever start to question their abuse. They need happy, willing, compliant travelers. Having people sobbing publicly at the checkpoints is bad for PR. Which is why I wasn’t ashamed to do so then, and why I’m not ashamed to proudly talk about my moment of “weakness” now. The TSA’s invasive procedures impose a huge burden on people; they should not have to bear that burden of private pain themselves. If it brings them to tears, then cry, and let the world see what our nation has become.
The TSA clearly doesn’t like it. As I sat there a man in a regular suit, the manager of the whole TSA area there, came out to talk to me. He tried to tell me that the x-ray machine was perfectly safe. “If it wasn’t I wouldn’t let my family use it.” Nice rhetorical tactic, I thought to myself, but I’m not buying that garbage. It made me angry that he’d even use it on those less informed about the risks of those machines, to try to wrongly assure them they posed no harm. “You’ve been drinking the kool aid,” I told him. He said nothing, but the look on his face told me he knew I was right.
The conversation kept coming back to the underlying policy argument of whether this entire farce of the x-ray machines and “enhanced pat downs” is really justified but I cut him off. “We’re not going to agree on that,” I said, and switched the focus back to the ice pack problem. “If you were going to keep me from getting medical care, then you needed to provide it.” That problem was much more simple, and much more solvable. When I told them I needed an ice pack — with a clearly swollen, discolored face, no less — it should have been given without debate.
And maybe in the future, at that particular checkpoint, it will. It is a solvable problem, and there’s no reason not to solve it. But it doesn’t solve the real problem, which is that the actual harm caused by these unreasonable TSA screening procedures is demonstrably greater than the potential harm the TSA is alleged to mitigate. This equation would be true no matter what the terrorist threat. The x-ray machines are ineffectual, dangerous, and an expensive diversion of money away from more effective anti-terrorist measures. Meanwhile, the “enhanced pat downs” are actual, violent assaults on innocent people.
Is this what America has become? It is perhaps worth noting that Terminal 7 is where British Airways and other international carriers fly out from. We aren’t just assaulting our own citizens; we’re attacking people from all over the world. And so I cried. I am surely not the first, and surely I won’t be the last, as long as these assaults continue.
Because I wasn’t just crying because of my own personal pain from my long week and bruising brow. At some point I blurted out to the man in the suit that I was a lawyer, and I could feel my heart break as I said it. If what the TSA is doing is right, then everything I learned in law school is wrong. I read the Constitution; I’ve sworn multiple times to uphold it. The people have the right to be secure in their person and effects, it says, clearly and explicitly. And yet, against the TSA, the people are not.
I recognized that feeling. It’s the feeling one has at a funeral, that sense of despair, grief, and unquenchable longing for what has been lost. “Death to America,” the terrorists say. But if the TSA is allowed to continue to get away with its abuse of innocent travelers, then the freedom America supposedly stands for has already died.