Monday, November 22, 2010


It didn’t dawn on me that our annual Thanksgiving family trek across the country would be more difficult this year until WonderWife™ brought it up.

“What are your thoughts on the new airport scanners?” she asked me one morning over breakfast.

She was referring to the new TSA full body scanners that bounce x-rays off the body in order to take a full, revealing image of airline passengers. Many people are up in arms over the invasion of privacy. Passengers can forgo the scanner, but are then subjected to a rigorous pat down that is reported to be so invasive, some who have gone through it are threatening to sue for sexual misconduct.

Personally, it’s not the the picture that bothers me. I don’t care if there’s some anonymous image of the outline of my stuff in some back room of an airport. I’m sure out there somewhere there is clear footage of me picking me nose while speeding along the freeway. What gets me is the safety issue and how it affects my kids.

The TSA says they’ve done studies and the findings show that there is “minimal risk” from the machines. Depending on whom you listen to the scanners give anywhere from one thousandth to one fiftieth the amount of radiation one would receive from a standard chest x-ray.

I want to believe that these machines are safe, but the cynical part of me doesn’t know if I should be so sure. Airport security has been a frustrating joke over the last decade. Our government’s reaction, over-reaction and sensitivity to any threat to national security have only made things worse. Its like they don’t really know how to keep us safe, but they’re really good at making it look like they’re keeping us safe.

In September 2001, I was working at a building where there was a security booth to the entrance of the building’s parking lot. Employees had company-issued ID cards that granted us access to the facility. After the shock of 9/11 wore away and the panic set in, security got tight. Suddenly our ID cards weren’t enough. We had to show photo IDs while the guards used mirrors to check under our cars. What used to take anywhere from 15 seconds to 2 minutes to enter the lot would now take 30 to 45 minutes.

This was back in the pre-kid days when I actually worked out instead of making excuses why I couldn’t. I showered at the gym and would drape my towel over the front seat of my car so it wouldn’t get all funky inside my gym bag, which I placed on the front seat. As a result, the bag would end up being covered by the towel. Despite all of the newly installed “security measures” at the building, not once did the guards ever ask to see what was under the lump that was obscured by the towel in the front seat of my car. If I had wanted to do damage to that facility, it would have been laughably easy. It incensed me that all of the security that was eating up precious time was all for show.

I find myself thinking about this whenever I’m queued up in the terminal, shoes and belt in hand, pants sagging, digging through my bags to fish out my electronics. I realize that there are real stakes when it comes to airport security. I would be naive to think that there isn't a need for it. However, from the vantage point of the average passenger, modern airport security seems like it’s all defense and no offense. It can also be frustratingly inconsistent from location to location. I can't help but stand there in line wondering how much of it is like the security of my former workplace—just for show.

The new big, scary scanners aren’t helping. They make a bold statement about the lengths being taken to keep us safe, but are they really safe? Was the old system so flawed that we have to go to these measures? Or are we being asked to trade our health for perceived safety? There’s no way to be sure that sometime in the future these machines won’t be found to be bad for us. It wasn't too long ago that people thought cigarettes were ok.

This is really the crux of my problem—it boils down to the safety of my kids. I care less about x-rays bouncing off my middle aged skin, but how will it affect my young children? It feels like us parents are facing a Sophie’s choice this holiday season: Do we expose our children and ourselves, both literally and figuratively, to potentially harmful rays? WonderWife™ and I strongly believe that the alternative—having our kids fondled by some bored TSA agent in rubber gloves—is actually more harmful.

There are people who say that the solution is not to fly. But that’s incredibly impractical when you live 3000 miles away from your closest family and only have a scant few days off in which to see them. It’s a shortsighted solution that would rob my kids of their grandparents and cousins. Sadly, the TSA and the airlines know that we passengers don’t have any other choice and they don’t seem to be making it any easier on any of us.

But they put on a good show, don’t they?


Astrogirl426 said...

My husband and I have the same feelings about the scanners and the "enhanced" pat-downs - we're worried about the risk from both, to both us and our 7-yr old. We're lucky that we're within driving distance of all our rleatives, but we've been thinking about going to Disneyworld this winter, and will not be flying. If we can't get there by train or car, it's not gonna happen. It adds to the challenge of travel, but it's a decision we've made, until this stupidity with the pat-downs ends.

Didactic Pirate said...

We flew today, and I had the same thoughts running through my mind -- I didn't care too much about whether I was bombarded by radiation or felt up by a screener, but I was curious/worried about what might happen with my kid. I was fully prepared to throw down with someone if they told me they wanted her to do anything other than walk through the regular metal detector. I had a preemptive head full of steam all ready...
...but sadly, it was all for naught. They didn't ask me, my wife, or my daughter to go through any of those extra measures.

So that's a blog post I can't write now, dammit.

Dad on the Run said...

Nice post, I railed against this choice on my blog recently as well. What a crock in the name of "safety" which as you touch on is merely an illusion anyway. I like your style, Geekboy, and I'll be subscribing/following whatever we're calling it today. Hope you'll check out my fledgling stay home dad blog as well if you get the chance.
--Dad on the run.

Ordinary Dad said...

I'm like didactic, I don't really care what happens to me. But I never thought about what affect those scanners might have on my kids?! Thanks for raising the issue

SciFi Dad said...

Like you, I wouldn't want my kids going through one of those scanners, and like Didactic, I'd probably line up with a head full of steam in anticipation.

James (SeattleDad) said...

Yeah that would really bother me too. Thankfully, I don't have any trips planned for him for some time from now.

Then it will get real.

Daddy Geek Boy said...

Astrogirl...You are lucky. I would love to live driving distance away from family.

Pirate...Actually, the same thing happened to us. Old school security on the way there. We'll see on the way home.

Dad...Thanks. Will check out your post.

Ordinary...Glad you liked the post.

SciFi...and as we know, a head full of steam does not always bode well with TSA.

James...Hopefully things will calm down before you have to travel again.

ZenMom said...

"It's like they don’t really know how to keep us safe, but they’re really good at making it look like they’re keeping us safe."

Yep. That sums it up nicely.

I prefer to drive to, well, pretty much anywhere that it's possible to choose driving over flying. So I haven't had to face this with my kids yet. But I totally get the frustration.

I don't think I would mind the scan or pat-down quite so much if I felt that it was actually accomplishing something. But the truth is that you can only do so much with security. And, beyond that point, all of the bells and whistles are just a waste of time and resources.

But, as a species, it seems that the less control we have over a situation, the more we feel like we have to "do something" in reaction. And when it comes to government agencies, the "something" is usually the equivalent of a finger in a dam: Not really clever or useful in the long run. Just bells and whistles. Really expensive bells and whistles.