Sunday, November 21, 2010

Full Body Scanner Reveals American National Character

Forgive the whipsaw, but I'm right back to annoyed and this time it is by the if-you-touch-my-junk protester who has become the American air traveler's new spokesmodel. I've written twice about the uproar over airport security and advanced imaging technology. First I criticized the ExpressJet pilot who refused to submit to the full body scan at at Memphis International Airport, then I semi-apologized a week or so later when it appeared that his not-gonna-take-it-anymore approach had the effect of prompting his fellow pilots to take a more unified and responsible position. They've written the chief of Homeland Security to review 21st century airport security. 

Negroni predicts the full-body scanners now in use at 65 airports around the country that allow TSA workers to detect what's underneath travelers' clothes are on their way out. And their rapid rise and fall present a high resolution picture of an American character flaw. Forget the fuzzy genitalia, what the full body scan is revealing is Americans as a bunch of cry-babies.

Here in America, one of the richest and most technologically advanced countries in the world, where education is free and speech protected, where the rule of law more or less acts as a balancing force between the haves and the have-nots, why oh why do we bitch-and-moan about everything? 

Nowhere is this more clear than in aviation. Last month, I was on AirTran's last flight of the evening from Atlanta to New York, when the crew detected a smell in the cabin it could not locate or identify. The airline made the decision to return to the gate, put the eighty-some passengers up in a hotel and fly us out in the morning. Hey, that's not good news for anyone. It meant I would miss my church's annual Scottish Sunday service complete with bagpipes, but as they say, things happen. 

Ahead of me in the line for the hotel vouchers was a woman who told me she would spend the night with a friend in town, but she was getting the voucher "because I'm entitled." Well yes, she was. Entitled. That's the name of this particular American trait that's got me grumpy. 

Last March when a Virgin America flight from Los Angeles to New York was diverted to Hartford's Bradley International due to weather, passengers were stuck on airplane on the ground for four hours before being bussed to New York. I heard about it on the radio the next morning when outraged passengers were threatening to file lawsuits. ABC News described the ordeal as "hellish". The story goes on to say that passengers went for more than two hours without food or water. Hellish? Nine years of war in Afghanistan, cholera in Haiti, human rights abuses in Myanmar and China and this diversion is news? Only in a country where going two hours without food is considered "hellish". 

The passenger bill of rights crowd and their pandering supporters in congress feed on this feeling of entitlement, the sense that nothing can go wrong and our every move has to be as comfortable and connected as if we were sitting in our pajamas in cozy living rooms even while we move in this incredibly complex system called commercial aviation.  

The notion that every step along the way will proceed without interruption or inconvenience is not happening and its unrealistic to expect that it will. Airlines, politicians, and air travelers are equally responsible for creating and buying into the fiction. The rants of some of my fellow bloggers have reached a fever pitch. One commenter likened airport security in America to "jack booted fascism". Say what? 

Up against hyperbole like this, what can the TSA chief John Pistole say? His entirely reasonable comment, "Security is a shared responsibility" has not registered.  No surprise there, how can anything be heard over the din of American boo-hooing.

Now we are in the throes of the latest passenger revolt, hysteria over the full body scanner and a call to boycott the procedure as we enter the busiest holiday week of the year. The worries range from radiation exposure and lack of privacy, to the discomfort of the alternative; receiving a full body pat down by a TSA officer.

The inconveniences associated with flying post 9-11 aren't designed just to piss travelers off. The pilots who make a flight diversion, the airline that decides to deal immediately with that unusual smell in the cabin, the security process that checks to see what passengers may be packing on their person, these decisions have history. And I guarantee you, let anyone in aviation fail to do their job correctly resulting in a terrorist act or air disaster and there will be plenty of tears and wailing too.

I could enter the fray again and say in all caps, SUCK IT UP FELLOW AMERICANS. Or I could tune out the whining. I'm the mother of four, trust me, I've tuned out plenty. But there's a greater harm in letting the frenzy continue unabated. Richard Bloom, an aviation security expert and a professor at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona explained it to me when I was visiting the campus last month. 

"Maybe something has happened to American national character," he suggested. "Too many people expect a risk-free life. If they don't have one, even if there is an unsuccessful terrorist attack for example, its really successful because people get bent out of shape. They want to fire their politicians and blame people." 

I've had a number of conversations about security with Richard and I'm usually impressed by the precision with which he sees the issues. I agree with him when he says that the X-ray belts and shoe removals, even the full body scanner must be the smallest part; the last-step in a long process that is much more focused and reliant on gathering intelligence, analyzing global trends, keeping an ear open to what other countries have to say and an eye on how they view Americans. 

And that's what's so worrisome. The picture of Americans emerging from the full-body scan, is an image of a people prone to complain and easily upset. Or as Richard sees it, "A very lucrative target for terrorists from a psychological point of view." 


Anonymous said...

Christine, you're mixing apples and oranges here. Yes, people complain too much about small things. But the current (and ongoing) stupidity of the TSA is a separate issue. It is not a small thing. Do you really believe that the TSA is anything more than useless security theater? I covered security as part of my duties at the International Herald Tribune in 2004-2005. I had private talks with some of the best security professionals in Europe and Israel. They considered U.S. "security" a joke, but one that wasn't funny. I also had a long chat with a retired CIA agent who said he would never again fly from a U.S. airport for any reason because of this joke. I decided he was right and that I will do the same. Several years later, I see that it works. I can get anywhere I need to go by car, train or by flying from Toronto where the security may be no better but the Canadians are at least friendly and professional. Now, we trust the TSA to strip us naked while treating us like useless trash??? Not me, not ever.... Don_Phillips

Frank Van Haste said...


I was going to comment on your post, but I find that I have nothing at all to add to what Don Phillips said. +1.


Comrade Misfit said...

First, I agree with Don. The TSA is largely a Potemkin agency.

Second, I do not trust the assurances of neither the TSA nor the manufacturers that the scanners are safe.

Chris said...

Christine, I truly admire your writing and I devour your posts eagerly, because it is clear that you are the consummate aviation professional. That said, I have never seen a posting of yours with which I could disagree more. Don has summed it up nicely -- there is too much whining going on about almost nothing, but there are times when griping is truly needed and this is one of them. My biggest fear (which thankfully appears not to be materializing at least so far) is that this issue will lose momentum and become "yesterday's news" as quickly as most everything else does these days. Far from stopping whining, I am all for getting a far louder voice reminding the TSA and the current administration that this is still the USA. Chris Wilcox

Anonymous said...

i couldn't agree with you more. the metaphor for scanners revealing our true character as a nation is spot on. that being said, we seem to "react" with new safety procedures after the fact... liquid scare: no liquids in carry on, shoe bomber scare: take off shoes, underware scare: full body scanners... it seems that we are a nation of reactions and not pro-actions. personally, i could care less if they do a full body scan (as long as i don't see it!). we really do need to get over ourselves, both from a security standpoint and from an "entitlement" standpoint.

Anonymous said...

Ditto to what Don said. TSA is doing their level best to kill aviation, and they're not protecting us any better than the way things were 10 years ago. Having been screened by the Israelis when I was flight testing a 757, I've seen the difference. Even in Seattle, El Al sends people to check everyone out. But, they don't grope you, or send you through a machine with questionable radiation safety protocols (at least, not then). No, the eyes, and questions, of the screener were penetrating enough.

I call the TSA "Brownshirts" because, to me, they embody the precursor of the SS here in the USA. They have power, they like it, and they're not going to give it up. What we have here is an out of control agency with no clear idea on how to execute its mission properly- just unfocused rage and avarice - and they certainly don't want to lose their jobs.

Suck it up? Get with the program? I'm intimately familiar with those words. Unfortunately, the TSA has not earned the respect necessary to invoke them.

-Brian Bixler

Andy H said...

I've seen plenty of whining from all sides when it comes to weather/mechanical/crew/etc delays &cancellations, but I very strongly lean towards the 'enough is enough' sentiment.
I'd never expect a risk free life...just ain't gonna happen. I don't want a government agency (or quasi agency) to wrap me in bubble wrap every time I want to cross the street.
Like anything else, I want to fight to strike a balance between security and liberty. I take full responsibility for my position, and it scares me that the envelope keeps being pushed.

Joel Siegfried said...

Hi Christine,

Your remarks are beautifully literate and compelling, but I believe off the mark.

The point is not about whining and complaining, or even about the puritanical nature of the American psyche, which evidently has never used a unisex bathroom in France.

The issue is about arbitrary authority. We don't like being told what to do. We also don't like a "one size fits all" mentality.

As has been said by others, 4 ounces of toothpaste or shampoo does not bring down airplanes.

When I worked for the Department of the Navy, I took a friend for lunch at the naval base on Coronado, CA. After our meal, we took a hike around the facility, right up to their runway where multi-million dollar fighters and other aircraft were parked. There were no barriers, no full body scanners, no TSA pat downs. The government evidently trusted anyone who had a pass to enter the base.

Why can't we use intelligence to evaluate our commercial aviation passengers in the same way?

Why do we have to concede victory to the terrorists by degrading our humanity, our constitutional rights, our freedom and independence.

Of course, the world is changing. It always has changed, and will continue to do so.

Those of us who remember going to the airport, walking to the gate, and getting on a plane, without passing through any form of security, are not hallucinating, or from the distant past. This all happened in our lifetime.

There needs to be a balance, and I don't think that Standard Operating Procedures are better than critical thinking outside the box, individual initiative, and probing passengers' minds instead of their body cavities.

Thank you for a great read. I love your style.



Joel Siegfried
National Desk - Airlines/Airport Examiner
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Captain Samir Kohli said...

In a country where 150,000 die every year in traffic accidents, but only 3000 have died of terrorist attacks since 9/11, this obsession with security is a bit misplaced...maybe the country still needs to learn Risk Management....whither Aviation SMS?

Suzan Baker said...

Its in fact alarming to have such body scanners ta the airport,as
Christine Negroni predicts the full-body scanners now in use at 65 airports around the country that allow TSA workers to detect what's underneath travelers' clothes are on their way out. what i believe is that, there should be some alternatives and one shouldn't be revealed in such a pathetic way while putting the integrity of people at stake. Birmingham Parking

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