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Peel and Feel: Bad Policy Never Stops Getting Worse

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The new TSA "peel or feel" passenger security policy has nothing to do with airline safety and everything to do with America's runaway culture of fear.

For those of you just emerging from hibernation, the Transportation Security Agency has upped the ante on its perpetual elevated security crisis stance by demanding all airline passengers pose for an X-ray machine that takes high resolution, front-and-back nude pictures of their bodies. Some deceptively low-quality images produced by these machines have been released for public viewing; don't be fooled. These X-ray images aren't like ordinary medical X-rays. The images are gathered by rays passing through clothing and bouncing off the skin. They expose every fold, crevice, and anatomical detail. It is easy to discern if the subject has had a mastectomy, for example, or is circumcised.

I encourage nudity, but I also believe it should be voluntary. And despite assertions to the contrary, the machines that make the images are designed to store and transmit them. Besides, anyone can take a picture of the screen with a cell phone or camera and the image can be distributed that way. It has already happened. In our modern world of pervasive titillation, how long will it be before a public figure finds his or her naked image, captured at an airport security checkpoint, all over the internet? How about a small child?

Sickened, yet?

But the TSA is sensitive to these privacy issues. Airline passengers who don't wish to have their nude pictures taken are provided with an alternative: the "enhanced pat-down."

This procedure is a limited version of the search performed in prisons. The breasts, buttocks, and genitals are fondled by an agent to ascertain that only the furnishings nature provided are found in these locations. We have the so-called "underwear bomber" to thank for that. To make this procedure sound more palatable, and probably also so the TSA agents don't vomit, the back of the hand is used for the most intrusive aspects of the search; in addition, agents are required to warn passengers of what's about to happen, much like a doctor saying "you'll feel a little pressure" as he goes in with the gloves.

To put this genital fondling procedure in perspective, if a TSA agent tried to perform one of these searches at a typical strip club, that agent would be dragged outside and beaten up by security. Exotic dancers now have more expectation of privacy than airline passengers. This sounds like a joke, but there's nothing funny about it.

If you are a survivor of rape or other sexual abuse, this procedure is no less a nightmare than the naked pictures. If you have deformities, injuries, or your body doesn't look or feel as expected, you will be singled out for further attention. What about transsexuals? They have little of this, a little of that, and I'm going to guess the screeners will have a hard time figuring out how to respond to it. What gender should the fondler be? How do we ensure the screeners looking at the nude pictures focuses on the job, not the equipment?

It should be telling that airline pilots are among the most vocal opponents of these procedures. Why do we even screen pilots? They're at the controls. They don't need hidden weapons. This is all about politics and the psychology of power; otherwise, pilots and flight crew would just have their credentials examined, not their private parts. These procedures are patently ridiculous security theater. They don't make flying much safer. They clearly violate the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure, regardless of arcane readings of the Constitution by compliant judges. Probable cause for suspicion is not that someone decided to buy an airline ticket. So why are allowing this to happen?

Most Americans don't fly very often. Only about a quarter of Americans possess passports. According to statistics, 80% of Americans will not fly in the next year, and of the remaining 20% who will fly, one in five will be responsible for the majority of the trips taken. These folks are commercial travelers, professionals. This may explain why 80% of Americans don't care what intrusive measures the TSA concocts to "keep Americans safe." But non-fliers who support the nude images and genital fondling of passengers are failing to think about where this whole crazy thing is headed.

Anybody concerned about the "nanny state" should be up in arms about this. But Americans have been remarkably short on implications, lately. If they're not personally flying, they don't care what happens to people who do fly. They won't get upset about this until they're being asked to strip naked before they can enter a public building -- why not at the DMV or the local courthouse? Are these not targets? A madman blew up a building in Oklahoma with a rental van. Should rental companies be required to feel your genitals before they give you a car?

The logical outcome of this ever-expanding "security" program, unless common sense prevails, will be cavity searches in public settings. It's not much of a stretch: the X-ray machines are already strip-searching you, the agents feeling your genitals, but they can't see or feel inside your body -- the most secure place to conceal a weapon. For anybody that grew up in our body-conscious, privacy-celebrating, freedom-loving society, the very idea of these "peel or feel" procedures should be anathema.

Because what's anathema now -- could be an enema later on.