An area Wiccan discovered first hand what most of us are still unaware of – many flyers are now being forced to choose between allowing a TSA agent to see them naked or to have their genitals touched and squeezed as part of what the TSA terms “enhanced pat downs.” Celeste, a survivor of rape, described her experience with the new TSA procedures as devastating.
Celeste is a seasoned air traveler. She estimates that she flies upwards of 60 times a year for her job and she knows all the ins and outs of most airports in the USA. Want to know which airport has the best sushi? Celeste can tell you. What she, and most other people didn’t know, was that on October 29th the TSA changed their security guidelines. “I flew to Chicago with no problems. Everything was the same as before. It was when I attempted to fly back to Minnesota that I found out about TSA’s new rules. What they did to me, in full view of everyone else in line, was like being sexually assaulted all over again. I was in shock. I hate myself that I allowed them to do this to me. I haven’t been able to stop crying since.”
Previously, flyers walked through a metal detector and some persons were randomly selected for a pat-down that avoided the face, genital areas, and hair. This was the procedure that Celeste was familiar with.
Then came the full body scanners, a device that uses powerful advanced imaging technology (AIT) to allow TSA agents to see the naked bodies of travelers. Not only have people expressed concern over being seen naked and having their photos stored in the machine, there are also health concerns from the scanners. Captain Dave Bates, president of the Allied Pilots Association, sent a letter to all 11,000 American Airlines pilots urging them to decline the full body scan, ”It is important to note that there are “backscatter” AIT devices now being deployed that produce ionizing radiation, which could be harmful to your health. ”
Celeste is opposed to the AIT devices, “I knew there were more and more of these scanners coming on line at airports. I try to pick a line where there isn’t one installed yet, but this is getting harder to do. I fly often and I don’t want the extra doses of radiation and I hate the thought of people looking at me naked. Why should I have to let people see me naked to get on a plane? This is my body, I’ve worked many years to re-establish the feeling that I’m allowed to have control over my body after being raped. Even the thought of that leaves me feeling dirty and vulnerable again.”
About 500 scanners will be operational by the end of this year. Five hundred more in 2011. Ultimately, the new machines replace metal detectors at all of the roughly 2,000 airport checkpoints.
Coming back from Chicago, Celeste, like increasing numbers of travelers, was forced to make a difficult choice – either allow strangers to see her naked or allow strangers to touch and squeeze her breasts and groin in full view of other travels and TSA agents. “This was a nightmare come to life,” Celeste says, “I said I didn’t want them to see me naked and the agent started yelling Opt out- we have an opt here. Another agent took me aside and said they would have to pat me down. He told me he was going to touch my genitals and asked if I wouldn’t rather just go through the scanner, that it would be less humiliating for me. I was in shock. I couldn’t believe this was happening. I kept saying I don’t want any of this to happen. I was whispering please don’t do this, please, please.”
Since Celeste didn’t agree to go through the scanner, the enhanced pat down began. “He started at one leg and then ran his hand up to my crotch. He cupped and patted my crotch with his palm. Other flyers were watching this happen to me. At that point I closed my eyes and started praying to the Goddess for strength. He also cupped and then squeezed my breasts. That wasn’t the worst part. He touched my face, he touched my hair, stroking me. That’s when I started crying. It was so intimate, so horrible. I feel like I was being raped. There’s no way I can fly again. I can’t do it.”
The TSA has said that travelers will receive the pat downs by same sex TSA agents, but both Celeste and other flyers have refuted this. (See linked stories below)
She said that fellow travelers, after seeing what happened to her, were more willing to go through the full body scanner. She noticed some, with small children, left the security line, refusing to put their children through the scanner or allow an adult to touch them that way. “What they did to me was criminal. I feel they are doing that demeaning of a body search to coerce others into going though the scanners. They made it as horrible as possible as a lesson to others, let me see you naked or I will touch you like I touched her.”
In an article for The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg seems to agree with Celeste’s assessment that those who refuse the scanner are made into object lessons:
The second lesson is that the effectiveness of pat-downs does not matter very much, because the obvious goal of the TSA is to make the pat-down embarrassing enough for the average passenger that the vast majority of people will choose high-tech humiliation over the low-tech ball check.
Consumer Traveler also agrees that this type of pat down is meant as a punishment:
However, when meeting with privacy officials at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and TSA later that month, I was told unofficially that there were two standards of pat-downs. One for the normal situation where passengers are going through metal detectors and a different pat-down for those who refuse to go through the whole-body scanners.
With this latest announcement, TSA admits that it has been clandestinely punishing passengers for refusing to go through the invasive whole-body scans with an even more intrusive aggressive pat-down and that soon those more invasive pat-down will creep from airport to airport.
Celeste’s experience is not an isolated one. Travelers, aircrew, and journalists are beginning to recount stories very similar to Celeste’s.
Thousands Standing Around – a blog containing testimonials of travels experiences with the “enhanced pat down”
Celeste lost composure repeatedly during the interview. When asked if she wanted to continue or stop the interview she said she needed to tell this story. “People have to know what these new procedures are and how they affect people. This has to stop. It has to. Contact your Congressperson. Write to the President. Get them to get involved. Speak out about this, pass my story on to others.”
As for how this experience has affected Celeste, in addition to the emotional trauma she is still suffering, it may also take a financial toll on her life. Her job requires her to fly and now she worries about her financial security, “What will I do now? If I can’t fly, I can’t do my job. Jobs aren’t exactly plentiful. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
The ACLU has set up a online contact form for passengers who feel they were abused while going through the airport screening process. The form can be found here.
*editor’s note: the photo that was in the original article, from a blog this article linked to, was changed to one taken directly from the TSA website. There was some question as to the authenticity of the photo and it may not have reflected more current body scanning technology, which is purported to blur the lower genitals of the body.