Showdown at the Airport Body Scanner
by Nathaniel Rich, New York Times, 25 May 2013
I have never walked through an airport body scanner — or, as I think of it, “the cancer machine.” In the years since these radiation chambers began appearing in airports across the United States, I have developed a variety of tricks to avoid submitting myself to them.
At checkpoints that use a combination of cancer machines and traditional metal detectors, it is just a matter of choosing the right queue. Often, however, a single line feeds into both machines, making the Transportation Security Administration officer responsible for directing passengers to one or the other. Since the officer gives priority to the cancer machine, relatively few passengers end up walking through the metal detector.
Confronted with this situation, I create delays, futzing with my shoes or laptop, until the line has bottlenecked at the cancer machine. At that point I walk confidently — or as confidently as one can possibly walk without wearing shoes — to the metal detector, at which point the officer usually waves me through.
Sometimes, however, there is no escape. In these cases I look directly into the eyes of the officer and explain that I refuse to go through “that machine,” or “that radiation machine,” or “that hateful cancer machine.” The official term for this is “opting out,” a phrase that suggests a reluctance to honor a simple, reasonable request. The suggestion is that the unwilling passenger is the unreasonable one. But I don’t think the United States government’s insistence on using these machines is reasonable. And if you think I’m crazy, then I have one thing to say to you: You’re crazy.
There have been various civilian protests against the X-ray machines, but most of them were inspired by concerns over privacy; the scanners, after all, showed agents what we look like naked.
In response, the Department of Homeland Security announced several months ago that it had terminated its contract with the X-ray scanners’ manufacturer — a company that actually calls itself Rapiscan (pronounced, I originally assumed, with a long “a”) — because it did not meet a deadline to deliver a less revealing technology. The Rapiscan machines have recently been replaced with scanners made by another company, which produce less graphic images. They also employ millimeter waves, which produce a significantly lower amount of radiation than X-rays. But those lower doses may be temporary. In October the T.S.A. signed a contract, potentially worth $245 million, with a third company that supplies a variety of “X-ray detection solutions.” It shouldn’t be too long before their machines begin appearing in airports.
The T.S.A. assures us that neither the X-ray scanners nor the millimeter wave machines pose a heath risk. But frankly I’d prefer to avoid being irradiated, even a little bit.
T.S.A. officers seem to take it personally when I opt out. They sigh, they roll their eyes, they snort derisively. I always have the impression that, at some point in their training, they have been told that passengers who opt out are foolish and selfish, because that is how I tend to be treated — with disgust.
After my refusal, the officer yells, “Male assist!” But nobody ever seems to hear him. I am ordered to stand to one side and wait, sometimes for as long as 10 minutes, for a second officer to appear. This person usually has been standing within five feet of me the entire time, eyeing me with irritation. Sometimes the frisker is even the original officer himself.
Once, running late, I expressed concern to an officer that I might miss my flight. It was my own fault, he replied, adding that, in the future, if I plan on opting out, I should arrive at the airport three hours early.
When the frisking officer finally appears, he rolls on a pair of latex gloves (a particularly ominous gesture, that) and leads me to a designated frisking area, which is in full sight of those passing through the security gate. I am offered the option of enduring my rubdown in private. I always refuse: Civil disobedience is worth nothing if it’s not done in public.
The frisk is needlessly, superfluously sensual. The officer runs his hands slowly over every inch of my clothed body. (Another trick: whenever I go to an airport, I make sure to wear a sleeveless undershirt and, if possible, shorts, so as to reduce the extent of the frisk.) The officer slides his hands over my chest and my back, then up the inseam of each leg — all the way — and back down. Recently, at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport, a particularly truculent officer repeated this part of the frisk twice, with unusual vigor.
“Two times?” I asked. “Really?”
“That’s how we do in Atlanta,” said the agent.
Never once has a frisker made eye contact with me while rubbing his hands over my body.
Often officers make a point of questioning my decision to opt out. I have several responses ready for them. I speak loudly so that other passengers in security can hear me. I note that there is a correlation between radiation absorption over a lifetime and cancer rate. Even if the machines release an extremely low amount of radiation, significantly lower than the cosmic radiation one absorbs during the course of any flight, why not avoid it if possible? I tell them that an investigative report in 2011 by ProPublica and PBS NewsHour concluded that the X-ray scanners, then still in use, could cause cancer in 6 to 100 United States airline passengers every year, and that the European Union banned those machines because of health concerns. “Come on,” said one officer at New Orleans’s Louis Armstrong airport, “You’re going to take directions from the Europeans?”
I point out that the manufacturers of body scanning machines have spent millions of dollars lobbying Congress to ensure their deployment. Finally, for good measure, I ask my frisker whether he has heard about the “cancer cluster” at Boston’s Logan airport. Security workers there have argued that their cancers were caused by standing close to the X-ray baggage scanners. T.S.A. officers do not like to hear about the Logan cancer cluster.
There are studies that show a correlation between extremely low-level, non-ionizing forms of radiation and cancer, just as there are many studies showing the opposite. Many scientists will insist that the low levels of radiation absorbed in airport security checks have no deleterious effect. That’s wonderful — I’m happy to concede that my fears are most likely baseless. But as long as there is any question of risk, no matter how small, I will continue to avoid the machines.
Airplane travel is disquieting, as is dealing with peevish federal officers, as is life. Even the slightest gesture of assertiveness can create the pleasing illusion that you control your fate. Besides, I’ve come to treasure this particular anxiety. It has hardened into something stronger: it has become a habit, a question of principle, a ritual. As I watch fellow passengers walk into the machines, posing with their arms raised over their heads like prison inmates submitting to a strip search, I feel proud of my small act of protest. Then I spread my legs and await my public groping.
Nathaniel Rich is the author, most recently, of the novel “Odds Against Tomorrow.”