Jewish World Review Dec. 1, 2004 / 18 Kislev, 5765
Pat me down for safety, please!
FEMININE MODESTY IS supposedly under attack at America's airports. We speak of the new "pat-down" procedure at security checkpoints. Some women charge that having security personnel feel around for explosives violates their person. They have lawyers on the case.
I have a solution. Let those who don't want the pat-down fly together on their own planes if they can find a pilot. Let everyone else travel with passengers who have been fully scrutinized. I know which flights I would choose: the ones for which they touch, X-ray and hang us upside down in search of bombs.
The actress Patti LuPone has raised a high-profile fuss over the pat-down. She says a screener at the Fort Lauderdale Airport demanded she strip down to her camisole. LuPone says she asked why this was being done, and the screener responded, "We don't want another Russia to happen."
Avoiding another "Russia" would seem a fine reason. Last summer, terrorists blew up two Russian airliners. Investigators believe that Chechen women had boarded the planes with non-metallic explosives hidden under their clothes. Shortly after the tragedy, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration issued new rules requiring more intense searches of passengers. Now, about 15 percent of air travelers are chosen for closer inspection, which may include the pat-down.
LuPone could have just braced herself and let the screening be done. A camisole is traditionally an undergarment worn under a sheer blouse, but current fashion permits it to serve as the top itself. One would not expect a trouper like LuPone to be so shy especially since she appeared topless in the movie Summer of Sam. But the actress protested much and was kept off her flight.
Let's put this in perspective. American soldiers are sacrificing their lives to fight terrorism, so giving up a little dignity in an airport pat-down should seem a minor imposition by comparison. And there are rules to make it as inoffensive as possible. Security workers are supposed to use only the backs of their hands when touching sensitive body parts. Female passengers usually get female screeners. And when a woman screener is not around, the passenger has the option of waiting for one.
There are women and men, too who are always looking for things to get in a huff over. Being touched by security personnel would seem a ready-made grievance.
Some women charge that others "gawked" at them as they went through the pat-down. You have to wonder about that. Few experiences are less sexually charged than airport security. And the other passengers themselves hopping around in their stocking feet would hardly find time to stare at anyone.
But some people cannot be consoled. Rhonda Gaynier, a New York real-estate lawyer, says a pat-down before a flight to Florida she called it a "breast exam" had her "almost in tears." "I've never been so humiliated in my life," the 46-year-old told The New York Post. Real-estate lawyers in New York are not famous for their sensitivity, but Gaynier was so upset by her alleged mistreatment that she wants to sue. She has retained civil-rights lawyer Norman Siegel, who is considering a class action.
Of course, this is a big country. Two million passengers go through its commercial airports every day. We can be sure that some screener somewhere is going to "cop a feel." That individual should be dealt with harshly. But the risk of encountering such a villain seems a fair exchange for not getting blown up midair.
Some critics of the pat-down say, Okay, but why put elderly women with canes through this embarrassment? The reason is simple: The day that terrorists think we're not checking Grandma is the day they'll try to conceal explosives on an older woman and she may not even know about it.
Again, back to my remedy. Put LuPone, Gaynier, Siegel and anyone else who refuses to be closely searched on the same special planes. If the woman in seat 36B has plastic explosives strapped under her cashmere, then that will be their problem. Everyone else who submits to the indignities of toughened airport security can gather on their own flights. They will feel safe in the skies and live to endure another pat-down.
Froma Harrop is a columnist for The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.