America’s Airports: Where Profiling is an Equal Opportunity Affair

by Dax-Devlon Ross

About a month ago I was in line at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport waiting to enter the terminal when I noticed one of the  TSA’s new Advanced Imaging Technology machines looming ahead. Currently, the two types in use are the “Millimeter (Wave) Unit” and its more unfortunately named relative, the “Backscatter Unit”. The Millimeter bounces “harmless” electromagnetic waves off the body to create a black and white three-dimensional image. The Backscatter projects “low level” X-ray beams over the body; thereafter a reflection displays on the monitor. Mine was a Millimeter.

The Millimeter Unit (left) and the Backscatter Unit (right)

This was my first time going through one of the devices and since no one else seemed to have a problem with it, frankly, neither did I. It didn’t even occur to me that I could or should refuse this procedure. And when my turn came I casually walked into what looked like a Star Trek transporter and assumed an unfortunately  familiar legs spread, hands-above-head position. My image captured, I proceeded out of the unit. Done and done, right? Not exactly. This is where things got sticky. The officer standing at the exit of the until suddenly halted the line, curled his head into the transmitter attached to his shoulder and began speaking to someone somewhere. Then he looked at me. I knew the look. Knew it well. I’d been flagged. In just a moment I was going to be asked to step off the line and submit to a special pat down. Sure enough I was directed to a special seating area and told to wait. Shortly thereafter a second officer — interestingly enough, an African-American man —  appeared. He asked me to have a seat, which I did. But I also politely asked him what was the problem.  This is usually where the law enforcement officer ignores me until he’s good and ready to tell me why I’m being detained. And where I start to ask over and over again until he realizes I’m not going to stop until I’m satisfied. He spared us both the aggravation and told me the deal. Apparently, and unbeknownst to me,  I had moved while I was inside the unit, causing my image to blur. He now needed to perform an enhanced body search in lieu of  the screening device.  Now, I may be a lot of things, but a fool it not one of them. First of all, the only time I’d moved inside the unit was when I, like everyone before me, lifted my arms above my head. Second of all, if my image didn’t render clearly then why not simply send me back through? That is, after all, the way the old screening process worked: if you set off the system, you simply removed whatever typically metal object you were still carrying on your person and re-entered the unit.

“That’s not possible,” the officer told me. He had to perform a search. And search he did.

Now, to say I felt physically violated by the ordeal would be a bit dramatic. What I felt was chagrined and, to a certain extent, profiled. Like most everyone else in line at that early hour, I was a business traveler. And like every other male in line with me, I was wearing a suit.  The only discernible difference was my race. How I could not logically conclude that I was being profiled? If there’s anything I’m an expert in it’s my experience as a black man in America. In the past two decades I’ve been rolled up on by an undercover jump out van, assaulted on a street corner, beat down in an alley, twice threatened with decapitation (once with the pistol pointed at my throat), handcuffed a half-dozen times, jailed three times — once for four days — and irrationally harassed while driving on too many occasions to count. By way of example (and because you can’t make this stuff up), a few summers back I was pulled over twice in the span of 20 minutes because I “had too many air fresheners in my rear-view mirror”. As recently as two years ago I was pulled over (and later arrested) for changing lanes at a toll booth. These are actual explanations that I am actually supposed to believe aren’t linked to racial profiling. Come on, be serious.

In retrospect, what’s interesting to me is that I’ve become so conditioned to my experience as a black man that, aside from the brief bitter taste it left in my mouth, I simply went on with my day. It happened. Move on. Whatever. I certainly didn’t foresee the impassioned national discourse on  passenger rights and public safety that has emerged in the last few weeks. In fact, I wasn’t even aware that one was even going on until a friend texted me from an airport yesterday expressing her concern about the new scanning procedure. Only then did I start paying attention. Less than twenty-fours hours later I’m sitting at my computer with 20 windows open. In just a few hours, what started as a simple search to find the precise TSA policy snowballed into an eye-opening study of what happens when issues  like privacy, public safety, national security, technology, the future of the airline industry, and the health of our economy collide.

We all know the story by now. September 11th radically altered the airline industry. In the immediate wake of the attacks the airlines lost nearly $2 billion dollars and laid off  close to 100,000  employees. Airline industry executives begged Congress for assistance and received $15 billion  in taxpayer bailouts. As an indirect outcome of the bill authorizing an airline payout, a law was passed establishing the TSA and placing airline security under its stewardship.  A year later oversight of the administration was transferred  from the Department of Transportation to the newly formed (and ominously monikered) Department of Homeland Security. Since then, and largely because of the agency’s perceived ineptitude and inefficiency,  it has consistently come under fire. None of that has stopped the aggressive expansion of the program. With more than 56,000 employees, the TSA’s annual budget hovers at more than $8 billion dollars. Just to give some perspective, of the 15 organizations housed within Homeland Security, only the U.S. Coast Guard and Costumes and Border Patrol have larger budgets.

What all of this means for those who travel by air is that in a  relatively short time  the TSA has become a part of the lives. More significantly, we’ve been forced to adapt to the disproportionate power we believe the administration wields in an area so fundamental to our American notion of freedom–air travel. Quite simply, if we don’t submit to the administration’s policies, no matter how seemingly asinine they may be, we can’t fly. Up to now those policies — taking off shoes, removing laptops, ensuring that travel size toiletries are placed in a clear plastic bag, blah, blah, blah —  have been more inconvenient than intolerable. Which is why the uproar about the new screening procedure is so intriguing. After 9/11 we all sensed that we’d entered a new territory, a new reality. We may not have known the specific contours of that reality but because we recognized the alternative was annihilation, we accepted what we were told. All we wanted in exchange was for our lives to return to as close to normal as possible. Since then our confidence in public and private institutions has eroded.  Some of that erosion is the result of time’s natural processes. Day to day concerns take precedence again. Color-coded terror alerts start to ring hollow. Slowly, we forget what it was like living under siege.

But some of the erosion of confidence is due to the compounding weight of deception. Think about it. In the last nine years we’ve been deceived about weapons of mass destruction, secret prisons, Wall Street practices, the lopsided bailout package–you name it and somebody lied to us about it.  We’ve now reached a point of such epic distrust that practically any rumor can gain traction in our collective blogosphere babble.  In fact, this past spring the Pew Research Center released an extensive report on Americans’ (dis)trust in government. The findings were alarmingly negative:

Just 22% say they can trust the government in Washington almost always or most of the time, among the lowest measures in half a century. About the same percentage (19%) says they are “basically content” with the federal government, which is largely unchanged from 2006 and 2007, but lower than a decade ago.

Opinions about elected officials are particularly poor. In a follow-up survey in early April, just 25% expressed a favorable opinion of Congress, which was virtually unchanged from March (26%), prior to passage of the health care reform bill. This is the lowest favorable rating for Congress in a quarter century of Pew Research Center surveys. Over the last year, favorable opinions of Congress have declined by half – from 50% to 25%.

… more people say the bigger problem with government is that it runs its programs inefficiently (50%) than that it has the wrong priorities (38%). But the percentage saying government has the wrong priorities has increased sharply since 1997 – from 29% to 38%.

Perhaps related to this trend, the survey also finds a rise in the percentage saying the federal government has a negative effect on their day-to-day lives. In October 1997, 50% said the federal government had a positive effect on their daily lives, compared with 31% who said its impact was negative. Currently, 38% see the federal government’s personal impact as positive while slightly more (43%) see it as negative.

Americans don’t feel good about government, and as a consequence of that dis-ease they’re skeptical about any new program:  Are these new measures necessary? Are they safe? Are they excessively intrusive? In the long run will they do more harm than good?  These are all complex questions that involve several interested parties, among which passengers are only one. But since our public discourse on the issue is being sidetracked by the media’s  fixation on sensationalist headlines, the stories we’ve heard thus far have all been laden with sexually signifiers like “groping,”  “fondling, ” “leaked,”  “molested,”  and “forced”. The list goes on. And as usual, what’s being lost in this latest muckraking affair is an honest conversation about what it means to live in America in the second decade of the 21st Century.

In her USA Today editorial last week Head of Homeland Security,  Janet Napolitano, addressed the big public concerns: necessity, safety and privacy.  As evidence of the necessity of the new procedures, Napolitano reminded us of last Christmas’ thwarted attack by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. We are heading into the holiday season, which means more traffic and a higher probability of a terrorist act. However, what Napolitan failed to mention was that a series of breakdowns in the intelligence community not our domestic security system had opened the door for Abdulmutallab’s entry into the United States in the first place. Moreover, he was flying from Amsterdam, which we all know isn’t under the jurisdiction of the TSA. In fact, both of the instances cited by the Homeland Security chief (the other being U.S. bound shipment of explosives)  involve international departures. My point should be obvious, but I’ll state it anyway: the new AIT machines or enhanced pat downs probably wouldn’t have altered those situations in the least.

And yet the “necessity” argument may still have merit, just in another capacity. Since cost-benefit analyses are routinely used by government agencies to decide whether to implement a new measure, I figured I’d simulate my own for these purposes. Let’s assume that the alleged “benefits” of the new security policies are increased airline security, public safety and administrative efficiency. What that translates to in dollars is beyond my pay grade; however, based on the planned “Opt Out Day” protests  it’s apparent that some passengers believe the price is too steep for “benefits” that don’t seem to bring us any closer to a world without fear. On the other hand, the so-called “costs” in this instance are comprised of the price tag for the machines ($215 million), the new staff to run the machines ($219 million) and the support costs associated with the implementation of both ($96 million). There are also additional “costs” to passengers among which the potential health concerns and the loss of privacy are the two most pertinent. Let’s take a closer at both of those:

Health concerns of the AIT machines

In her editorial Napolitano writes of the machines, “They have been independently evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, who have all affirmed their safety.” Still, critics of the machines aren’t satisfied. At a recent press conference New Jersey State Senator Diane Allen expressed deep concern about the dangers of radiation exposure:

Certain Americans, including cancer patients and survivors who are being treated or have been treated with radiation therapy are told by their doctors to avoid unnecessary exposure to additional radiation. As a cancer survivor myself, the new imaging equipment used for full body scans concerns me greatly. The U.S. government has not provided adequate information on the potential health impacts of these machines …

She emphasized that “David Brenner, director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University has in fact said it is likely that at least some people who are exposed to the new scanners will develop cancer as a result, with frequent fliers and children among the most susceptible.

My only gripe with Senator Allen’s concerns is that while radiation exposure is a legitimate concern, it’s here to stay. We’re exposed to it every time we turn on the television or microwave, every time we use a mobile phone or pass through a digital wireless system. In fact, baby monitors, remote control devices, cordless phones, security systems and security cameras also emit radiation, and, more likely than not, we’re exposed to those emitters more frequently and for longer periods of time than AIT machines.


Invasive Imaging

“Rigorous privacy safeguards are also in place to protect the traveling public,” writes the Homeland Security Chief in the same editorial. “All images generated by imaging technology are viewed in a walled-off location not visible to the public. The officer assisting the passenger never sees the image, and the officer viewing the image never interacts with the passenger. The imaging technology that we use cannot store, export, print or transmit images.”

Last week online tech magazine Gizmodo released a story implying that it had obtained “leaked” images from airport AIT machines. The story, of course, gained immediate traction on the internet. It was only partly true, though. While the images did come from an imaging machine, they weren’t from airport machines. They were taken from courthouse scanning machines that have storage, exportation and printing capabilities that their airport-bound cousins don’t have.

Maybe I’m missing something but it would seem that in this specific instance at least the TSA took every reasonable precaution short of castration to ensure the privacy of passengers, yet that hasn’t stemmed the outpouring of distress and fear about women, girls and boys’ bodies being seen (the latest story is about a “shirtless” boy). This is the hypocrisy that grates at me. The same people who are up in arms about their government treating them like criminals are quick to presume that the screened, trained and monitored officer viewing the images is a pervert getting off in front of the screen–a criminal in other words. What’s really funny, though, is the presumption that anyone really wants to see the average American’s “junk” in the first place. Not to be mean, but I’ve seen the average American fully clothed and it ain’t pretty.

Which leads us to the big one:

Body Searches

Writes Napolitano, “Pat-downs have long been one of the many security measures used by the U.S. and countries across the world to make air travel as secure as possible. They’re conducted by same-gender officers, and all passengers have the right to request a private screening and have a traveling companion present during the screening process.”

By far the biggest story emerging from this imbroglio has been the outcry against “intimate pat downs”. The ACLU has threatened (but not really) legal action against  the searches. They and other civil rights groups argue that the searches are a violation of American values. Really? Really?? Try telling that to the African-American and Latino males living in New York City where they are nine times more likely to be stopped and frisked on the street and usually for no reason other than so-called “furtive movements”. I know two wrongs don’t make a right, but  the experience of being frisked is part of some Americans’ reality already and has been for some time. For those of you shaking your heads in disgust or disbelief do me a favor. Close your eyes and imagine some kid who’s been randomly stopped on a New York City street corner saying to the officer, “You know, I don’t feel comfortable being patted down on the street in front of all these people; would you mind taking me somewhere private. Oh and can my buddy come along to support me and ensure, you know, nothing funny happens.” It ain’t happening, and it’s a slap in the face to compare an optional airport search for the protection of everyone against mass destruction to the kinds of human dignity violations that minorities and youth of color experience on a daily basis.

[Stepping off my soap box]

Maybe I’m biased by my own experience, but I just don’t have much sympathy for those who insist that body searches violate their 4th Amendment rights. Stay home. Drive. Catch a boat, bus or a train. Walk. No one is stopping you from traveling.

As for the persistent “groping” and “fondling” fears,  my sense is that if  TSA officers were allowed to speak candidly they’d tell these concerned citizens (who seem to have awfully exalted images of their desirability), “Nobody wants to touch you or you child. We just want to do our jobs and go home to our own families, like you. That’s all. We didn’t make the rules; we just follow them. And believe you me, I’d much rather have you go through the machine than have to touch any part of you.”

There is another way to apply a cost-benefit analysis to the new security measures, one that I think is more appropriate to the situation. It goes something like this. Does the potential cost of not implementing these new procedures outweigh the benefit of not implementing them? In her editorial, Napolitano stressed the “constantly adapting” tactics being used by terrorists to attack our global aviation system. This is an important piece of the “necessity” equation. There’s no such thing as standing pat in an ever changing world. Standing pat is akin to sliding back; it’s that simple. If new, advanced technology is available, which it is, and we elect not to use it because we believe the benefits don’t outweigh the costs, what happens if there is another disaster? All we have to do is look back nine years to know. After 9/11 our airline system was grounded for 2 days and hobbled for months. Airlines lost millions on idle planes that cost upwards of $500,000 per month to lease. Insurance costs shot up immediately. Working people lost their jobs. The government was compelled to dole out billions of taxpayer dollars. If you look at it from an economic standpoint, we, as a country, may not be in a position to absorb the cost of another terrorist inspired disaster on our air-travel system. Moreover, the cost of implementing these new systems (a little more than a half-billion dollars) is pretty modest in comparison to the costs that would accrue in the wake of a disaster. Putting aside former Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff’s financial ties to the manufacturer of one of the scanners for the moment, not implementing the latest available technology when so much is on the line is akin to an act of willful negligence if not worse. As a matter of fact, I’m sure, no, absolutely positive, that the same people crying foul now would be crying foul if the TSA didn’t implement these new procedures and another terrorist attack occurred.

Based on my research and observations, I’m of the opinion that the cold-blooded (shot out to Rick James) facts of “necessity” haven’t been articulated to air travelers. Those of us who travel frequently are led to believe that all is well in the airports. We travel without incident. As cheap and uncomfortable as the airplanes have become, the airport environment is calm, soothing, even luxurious for those who can afford the Admiral’s Club experience.  We can buy expensive lattes, cosmetics, sit down for a nice meal, a beer, a conversation. We can look out of the window at the planes taking off and landing. We can get online. We can even work if we so choose. In other words, we assume everything is back to normal and don’t understand why any new security measures would need to be put in place. The irony of course is that the sense of security we feel in airports is due in no small measure to the TSA’s unsung efforts. We just don’t see what’s going on behinds the scenes. We look around  and we see people who remind us of ourselves: attractive, well-dressed, readers of books,  owners of the latest technology and conspicuous sippers of the latest caffeinated beverage.

According to JCDecaux Airport, a media and communications firm that links brands with consumers, business and frequent flyers  are “highly educated, upwardly mobile and affluent corporate decision makers”; similarly, nearly two-thirds of all travel is being done in the name of leisure. Now, I’ve read my Thorstein Veblin. I know about the leisure class. Some of my friends would even say I’m at a card-carrying member myself. Leisure time is a luxury and luxury denotes wealth. It’s no coincidence that air travelers account for 81% of the new Mercedes Benz’s bought each year and spend 40% more on jewelry than do non air travelers. Or that 66% percent of air travelers have college degrees and 83% are registered to vote. Flyers are an elite group. And as with any elite group they tend to view — consciously or not —  their interests and intellects as being above and superior to those of the masses, in which, I might add, TSA employees tend to be lumped. I’d even go so far as to say the umbrage and outrage being expressed by airline passengers  should be  read, at least in part, as an attitude of entitlement run amok.

Easy, now. I don’t mean this to dismiss their gripes of disparage the well-to-do, but to address an obvious but unmentionable fact: class is a huge part of the discussion and yet it hasn’t been discussed at all. And while I don’t always trust my government or agree with its decisions, I also don’t automatically or categorically stereotype it or its employees as incompetent and untrustworthy.  From what I can tell the TSA has narrowly tailored its policies so as to infringe upon “American values” as little possible without jeopardizing the air travel system that we all depend on. Would I have maybe  made some different decisions? Perhaps. Do I think the people operating the systems are without bias? No. But it pleases  me nonetheless to know that the administration has striven to balance so many competing interests instead of simply running roughshod over human dignity. At a time when  lawmakers are being censured for ethics violations, knowing that ethical dilemmas such as the dignity of personal privacy, the uses and misuses digital technology and the albatross of racial profiling are being candidly discussed and compassionately accounted for gives me some measure of comfort, even hope. Call me naive in having a little faith in my government to do the right thing, but I know what it’s like to be unfairly profiled and this ain’t it.