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Kelly Kleiman

Kelly Kleiman

Posted: March 6, 2010 01:08 PM

Full Body Scans Are a Feminist Issue

What's Your Reaction:

Apropos today's introduction of full-body scanners at Logan Field in Boston:

These machines, which provide naked images of travelers, will soon operate at the nation's
largest airports. But I refuse to go through a full-body scan. When the scanners arrive at O'Hare, I'll start flying from Midway. When they come to Midway, I'll use Gary-Chicago, or take the train, or ride an intercity bus. (If I've figured out these evasions, don't you suppose Al Qaeda has, too?)

Relatively few travelers seem to share my qualms. They tell TV interviewers they're
willing and eager to be screened using "enhanced" security measures (echoes of "enhanced
interrogation techniques"). "Anything," said one man, "so long as my family is safe." Really?
How about having a government official shove his finger up your butt? Because that's what's
next. If full-body scanning interferes with concealing explosives in underwear, a determined
bomber will conceal them in his rectum. Presto: body-cavity searches for all.

Surprisingly, a pair of otherwise civil-libertarian friends shrugged when they heard this rant.
"I'm not with you on this one," they said. They cited the impersonality and brevity and
disposability of the images. (I'm skeptical of the proposition that the government will
collect information and throw it away: since when?) They reduced me to inarticulate dudgeon, because I couldn't imagine how they could fail to share a response I felt so viscerally.

And then I realized: they're men. They haven't spent their entire lives bracing themselves
against precisely the violation of being stripped naked by a stranger. As far back as grammar
school, it was accepted practice in my middle-class neighborhood for a boy to threaten to grab a girl walking home and strip her. I don't know if this was ever actually done, but the mere threat was effective in keeping girls frightened and under control. And, as Susan Brownmiller established, the threat of rape-including the notion if not the actuality of nakedness-is the pervasive device by which men keep women in line.

So public nakedness may put a man in mind of swim class or an Army physical: an annoyance, perhaps, but not a threat. It puts a woman in mind of the fear she carries around all the time, whether parking in a garage or going to sleep in a house with an unbarred back door or heading out for an evening. And that's why I suspect most women know intuitively that full-body scans are the bridge too far: the privacy violation that simply can't be tolerated.

I've been fortunate. I've never been stripped or raped. And I don't propose to let a government agent be the one to end my lucky streak.

Already people in airports give me dirty looks when I complain (sotto voce) about having to take off my shoes and my coat and my belt while accounting to a stranger for my underwire bra. My critics seem to imagine I'm objecting to the inconvenience. Wrong: I'm objecting because the Constitution says I'm entitled to be secure in my person from unreasonable searches, and because I know --and I know the TSA knows -- that it has no earthly reason to search me, or most of the other people it holds hostage at the X-ray machine.

Instead, why not try making sure the no-fly list is up to date? (The existence of that list demonstrates that even Homeland Security regards the rest of us as yes-flies.) Try screening with people instead of machines, through conversations with those who pay cash or have no luggage or buy a one-way ticket. And while you're at it, try educating flight attendants about the difference between someone trying to detonate an explosive and someone engaging in prayer.

Freedom requires a limit on governmental interference with travel. We knew that when the Berlin Wall separated the two halves of Germany. We know that about people prevented from leaving North Korea today. Now we just have to apply it to ourselves.

The whole TSA system is an elaborate -- and stupid -- charade; but til now, I've put up with it. That's over. Being looked at naked by guards is bad enough when it's done to prisoners of war. I'm not an enemy combatant -- not a combatant of any kind, not an enemy of any kind -- and I won't allow myself to be treated like a prisoner in my own country.

No one else should either. If every woman who shares my gut response to the full-body scan reports that to her Congressman-or Congresswoman!-this nonsense would end. What are we waiting for?