4 Reasons I Opt Out of Security at the Airport

Photo by Daniel Eledut on Unsplash

1.73 milllion passengers fly domestically in the U.S. every day. Sometimes, I’m one of them. Like everyone else, I want flying to be a safe, secure experience. And yet, I opt out of the backscatter x-ray machine in the security line, a machine which the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) claims will make all of our flying experiences safer.

The TSA is notoriously inconsistent in their screening process, and I’ve had personal experience to prove it. Once, I went through the entire security checkpoint, x-ray machines and all, with a four-inch partially serrated bucknife in my carryon bag. I didn’t notice it until I got home. It’s my best backcountry camping knife so I was really grateful it flew under the radar, and the TSA should be grateful that it was me they let slide and not someone with malicious intentions.

On another occasion, my grandma, at 5’1” and in her 80’s, boasting glaucoma and hearing impairment, attempted to board a plane with a tiny pair of foldable sewing scissors that she’d purchased in Europe 50 years prior. The TSA deemed those scissors a threat and confiscated her prized possession, a fact of which she reminded us for years to follow. Good job keeping the peace, TSA. I’ve read stories of thwarted bombings on one hand, and of someone making it through security with their open-carry handgun, and going back themselves to turn it in, on the other. So you’ll forgive me if I’m skeptical.

It’s also different at every airport. At the award-winning Portland International Airport in Oregon, the security personnel consistently ask me if my stainless steel water bottles are empty BEFORE they run them through the scanner, and they give me the chance to dump the liquid if they’re not.

At Houston Hobby airport, where I’ve had trouble every time I’ve flown, they once let me all the way through with about an inch of water in a stainless steel bottle. They then informed me that they were unable to pour the water out themselves. They additionally searched my entire bag, and told me if I wanted my water bottle back I’d have to go back to the start of the line, dump it myself, and go through the whole security screening again. This would have wasted a lot of people’s time, caused me to miss my plane, and improved the security of exactly no one, so I lost a nice insulated bottle there.

I could go on with similar examples, but let’s cut to the chase: despite the TSA’s inconsistency and inefficiency, I choose to make my own travel experience a little less efficient by opting out of their backscatter x-ray machines. Here are the top four reasons why:

4. Because I don’t want to be a statistic. This is relatively new and untested technology, and we all know how that sometimes ends. When my mom was a kid, she got to stick her feet in an open x-ray machine at the shoe store and watch her metatarsal and phalanges bones wiggle around, and everyone said that that was perfectly safe. Now when you get an x-ray, they put a lead vest over any part of your body that’s not being x-rayed and the technician walks out of the room.

When my dad was a kid, DDT was sprayed on public lands in the name of public safety, and we all know how that ended, too (or if you don’t, the answer is cancer and ecological destruction all the way up the food chain with persistent effects to this day).

So what about research on the backscatter x-ray machine? The thing is, there’s just not enough. The European Union removed them from their airports for that reason, but the U.S. ignored the Hippocratic Oath and forged on ahead. Some research indicates that about six additional cancers will occur for every 40 million scans, which medicine deems statistically insignificant, but to those 6 people, who have a lives and families, the statistics were a bad gamble if they could have chosen a pat-down instead.

The Radiological Society of North America recommends avoiding the use of the backscatter x-ray machines because a safer alternative, the millimeter wave scanner, is available. For the backscatter machine, they state:

Essentially, the risk is present at an unknown quantity and so they make a sound medical recommendation to mitigate the risk.

I understand that levels of radiation higher than those produced by the backscatter machines are everywhere, including on the flight I board after security, but levels of risk are true in all parts of my life. I eat organic food whenever I can. I don’t stand in front of the microwave. I wear my seat belt when I drive. I engage with the necessities of life, but I also minimize risk in a risky world. I once opted out of the airport scanner and a TSA agent said to me, “It’s just like your cell phone,” to which I replied, “Cell phones give people brain cancer,” another fact which lacks conclusive or comprehensive research. Some studies say yes, some studies say no, but the fact is, we don’t yet know, and anyway I don’t make a practice of standing inside my cell phone. So I’ll hedge my bets on this one.

3. Because I value making a human connection. The airport security system is inherently designed to be inhuman. Get in line, keep moving, get halfway undressed, surrender your personal effects, submit to radiation, get your bag searched, grab your pile of stuff and get dressed again, keep it moving, keep it moving, keep it moving. Human touch, conversation, and direct interaction slows things down.

In the years since I started opting out, I’ve noticed that each person has a different style of pat down. Some TSA workers seem nervous, some seem confident. Some seem professional, some seem like they’re out to lunch. Some work quickly, some work slowly. Some are more thorough than others. Some ask me about my life and some seem to barely notice I’m there. But all of them have to stop for a minute and engage with me as a human, and I have to do the same. We have to have a moment of mutual trust to get through the process successfully. It took me a long time to get up the courage to do this. I was terrified of feeling violated by a stranger. Now I realize the value of touch.

On my last flight, the pat-down was conducted by a pregnant woman, one of the most professional and competent TSA agents I’d come across, and I was humbled by her ability to do this busy job on her feet all day at what looked like about six months along. On the same trip, the man who searched my bag was middle-aged and appeared to be in a lot of pain. He was slow in a way that looked like he didn’t have an option. I asked about the pain and he said he had a lot on his mind, that being on his feet made it harder, and that he’d rather be working with children. Even though I couldn’t relieve his overall situation, I let him know that he was seen, and I now feel connected to his story.

2. Because I want to practice peaceful resistance. The current U.S. president has all the early warning signs of a fascist dictator. Regular civil disobedience is necessary. And difficult. I don’t enjoy making waves any more than I enjoy going to the dentist, but I value my teeth and so I go. I value my liberty and so I disobey when I see signs of my freedoms being taken away.

Every time I step out of that security line and wait for a pat-down, I practice thinking for myself, standing for what I believe in, choosing the more challenging route in the name of justice. I know that if I can’t do it here, where the stakes are relatively low, then I’m not likely to be able to do it when the stakes are much higher.

My friends opt out for their own reasons. I have a Latino friend who opts out because he feels it’s important for the public to see a brown-skinned man being patted down in public, reminding people that this happens on a regular basis in much less congenial settings. I have a friend with chronic illness who opts out because she already faces such an uphill battle with health that she sees no reason to introduce any unnecessary risk factors. I have a lot of other friends who had no idea you could opt out until I told them. Each of us can choose human connection and interrupt the system, rather than to stand with our hands up and allow an officially sanctioned stranger to see under our clothes while irradiating our cells in the name of safety. #RESIST.

1.Because I can. Timothy Snyder, in his brilliant book , opens with Lesson #1: “Do not obey in advance.” I recommend reading the whole book, but that one line may be all you need.

Every time you go through airport security, there’s a small and inconspicuous sign alerting you to the fact that the scanning machines are optional. Almost nobody takes this option, but I do because I learned early in life about the consequences of obeying in advance.

I grew up in a mixed-faith household and was given a Jewish religious identity and education, of which Holocaust education was a significant part. I was steeped in imagery and stories of a whole European society turning a blind eye while Hitler’s Third Reich slowly, systematically took away the rights of Jews, gays, Gypsies, Catholics, people with disabilities, and anyone else who didn’t fit the mold. It wasn’t all at once because people, like a frog in hot water, will balk at that. Hitler knew this. He took it slow. Over the course of ten years, police stopped protecting Jews, then Jews were excluded from military service, then they lost their right to vote, then their passports were specially stamped, and only towards the very end were they required to wear yellow stars on their jackets, identifying themselves in public. By the time they were forced onto trains out of town, many believed they were being taken somewhere better. They got on the trains like sardines in a can, then off the trains into lines to take “showers” to prepare for the new place they hoped they’d live. The showers ended in either the camps, or the ovens.

Every time I see people lined up in zigzagging rows, taking off their shoes and voluntarily lifting their arms over their heads to be irradiated while their belongings are scanned and potentially rifled through and confiscated, I remember this lesson from history. These are the same studied systems employed in airport security, which for now are designed to just get you on the plane. But you don’t have to obey in advance.

The first time I opted out, they made me wait for an extended time. Then they opened up a metal detector to speed up the line. I watched as twenty people who had been behind me in line sped through the metal detector, yet they didn’t let me through. When I asked why, the reply came: “Because you opted out.”

Since then I’ve heard similar punishing statements such as, “It’s your time, you sure you want to do this?” “You might miss your flight,” and, “We have no idea how long this will take.” The best one was after I’d been patted down by a woman who was barely paying attention, looking the other way and having distracted conversations the whole time (Houston Hobby airport again, get it together, ya’ll). I was sent to a man whose job it was to search my bags, and he made a snide comment designed to shame me for opting out. I don’t remember his exact comment, but it was something to the effect of, “The airport should hire more staff to make it easier for you to be special.” This was hot on the heels of the recent government shutdown, when TSA employees went unpaid for weeks. “The government should really pay their staff,” I replied. He smiled and said I should vote. I said I do, and I hope it makes a difference.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store