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.

Back-of-the-seat-in-front-of-you cinema

When it comes to movie consumption, there’s no truer democrat in America than the slightly inebriated airline passenger. You’ve observed it, I’m sure—how at a certain altitude, and after a certain number of Bloody Marys, every prejudice of class and gender begins to be dissolved; how in that strange and hurtling passivity the grandmother in the aisle seat will submit with a kind of rapture to The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, while the tattooed young man by the window gratefully dabs his eyes at the last frames of 27 Dresses.

—James Parker, Double-X Films

I actually watch a lot of rom-coms on airplanes. I suppose my interest is primarily sociological: What is this category of pop-culture telling women about love? Obviously I could also just ask my female friends but sometimes you want to get it from the primary source material. Also, occasionally they’re decent movies: “Four Christmases” had some amusing scenes.

For whatever reason, I don’t watch a lot of action movies in planes, or on the ground for that matter. Could be because video games leave that part of me pretty well-sated, and your average action movie just isn’t that interesting in a cultural studies sort of way.

And, once in a great while, I can actually watch a good movie on a plane. I saw “The History Boys” on an Alaska Airlines flight once, which is pretty astounding when you think about it. Not to give too much away, but the Wikipedia entry for the film uses “Modern pederasty” as one of its categories.

Doing it sideways

New aircraft design puts passengers face-to-face in rows for budget travel

“Having passengers face each other is not an ideal situation. ... But this will see increased revenue for the operator and more economical tickets for the passenger – so by keeping both happy, this concept makes an attractive alternative. Sure the passenger can choose a flight facing forward in a traditional seating position, but he or she will have to pay more for the luxury.”

[Design Q director Howard] Guy predicts that the design could see a 50 per cent increase in the number of passengers on board and a 30 per cent reduced cost per seat.

Personally, I’d probably be fine sitting this way and paying 30% less. For short flights, anyway. Staring at someone else’s face would get pretty old on the 14-hour trip to Seoul.