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Opting out

Last week, on the way back from California, the security line at SFO was funneling everybody through a backscatter machine. This was the first time I’d been confronted with one (they weren’t using one at JFK), and I said I’d like to opt out.

A TSA employee directed me to stand aside, and then asked me my reasons for opting out. She didn’t ask my name. I said I was concerned about privacy and radiation, and she wrote that down on a clipboard. Another TSA employee, a man, took me to an area within full sight of all the security lines, and as he put on rubber gloves, he began to explain the pat-down procedure. At every step of the way, he was careful to explain where his hands were going next. It was, as you’ve probably heard, a very intimate search, and I didn’t enjoy being searched this way in full sight of everybody else. (In fact, I had previously asked if I could be searched in private, and he said that it was possible but we’d have to wait for a supervisor, and I didn’t want to spend any more time waiting around than necessary.) After the search was done, he said I was free to go. The whole thing took about five minutes.

Every TSA employee I interacted with was polite and professional. Perhaps that was due in part to the fact that I didn’t act with indignation or anger towards them—I don’t often believe in harassing rank-and-file workers over a policy they didn’t put in place. Not that I wasn’t annoyed with the whole thing: I think the policy makes no sense. I think installing machines that take huge numbers of naked digital photos of people is bound to lead to cases of abuse. I think if we took those resources and applied them to actual intelligence work it would do far more to make us safer. And the ties to Michael Chertoff make the whole thing seem like a scam.

Those aren’t really the reasons I opted out, though. I’m not actually that concerned that my naked photo will be saved and circulated, nor am I that concerned about the health risks from the radiation. Mostly I opted out because I don’t agree with the use of the machines at all, and it feels important to me to act based on that belief.

Am I deluding myself? Is this just empty symbolism, with myself as the only audience? Perhaps. I didn’t do it with the expectation that my orderly opt-out would precipitate some crisis in the system, and if the Washington Post’s poll is any indication, most people are fine with these machines anyway.

Ever since the NYPD instituted random bag searches at subway stations a few years back, I’ve been opting out of those too. And I suppose one of the important things I get from that is the practice of saying “no” to authority. There’s no point in being contrary for its own sake, but it seems that in the specific times when you firmly believe you’re in the right, you ought to have the fortitude to refuse a request from an authority figure. How are you going to get that fortitude if you don’t practice? It seems like the sort of thing a citizen should be good at.

So maybe I opt out because I want to, because I am able to, and because I want to make sure that I still have the small courage it takes to do so. If that costs me five minutes of embarrassment every time I get on a plane, that’s probably an acceptable price.

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