violating the weak or the elderly does not make us safer

A few weeks ago, our daughter returned from Mexico after five months away, landing in Edmonton around midnight. As our family ran down the corridor to meet her, carrying signs and balloons, somehow in the mayhem a few balloons popped in quick succession. Within moments, security appeared and they did not look impressed.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, airport security has become increasingly edgy, and screening has become increasingly invasive. To reduce the anxiety about it, they refer to it as screening, like it’s some kind of lightweight mesh that keeps out nasty mosquitoes. Pat-downs are called enhanced screening, sort of like watching Justin Bieber in 3D.

We’re told that it’s now normal and we are to actually welcome it, a sentiment reflected in Michael Ignatieff’s words, “If you’re in my business, you live in an airport. And so I have people touching my private parts all day long.”

Thanks, Iggy. That makes me feel so much safer.

In reality, pat-downs are invasive, embarrassing and often done in full view of other passengers.

My sister-in-law is a professional who travels a lot in Canada. A security checkpoint chose her for a random physical search where she was poked, handled, grasped and groped under her clothes in full view of other passengers. She left in a daze and realized afterwards that she was in shock from the embarrassment and intrusive nature of the search. When she got home she lodged a formal complaint with the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA). The only response they gave was that she could have asked for a private room if she was uncomfortable. How many people would stand up to airport security and demand privacy? Come on. That’s like confronting a police officer when you don’t like what’s happening. We’re trained to comply, not demand.

Stories of humiliating and sometimes traumatic experiences at the hands of airport security are becoming commonplace in our culture of fear. Although every inspection makes a person feel vulnerable, searches done on the defenceless and weak of our society push the boundaries too far.

Last February, a developmentally delayed child named Ryan was ordered to hobble through a security scan without his leg braces before he was allowed to continue with his parents on their trip to Disneyland. He was four years old! How many toddler terrorists in leg braces frequent Disneyland?

Thomas Sawyer, a teacher and survivor of bladder cancer, was humiliated in December when security officials burst his urostomy bag, forcing him to walk through the airport and board the plane soaked in urine.

In Canada, 80-year-old Lena Gudel, who was wheelchair bound, had hands thrust into her pants and underwear, while her requests for a translator went unheeded. Calgary security staff forced 82-year-old Elizabeth Strecker, a breast cancer survivor, to stand spread eagle then reveal her prosthesis to prove she wasn’t carrying bomb material. She had already received a body scan.

These people gave up more than a Swiss army knife or tube of toothpaste. They lost their dignity on the altar of politically correct random sampling. I have yet to see statistics demonstrating the weak or elderly as a significant risk to airline travel. Violating them does not make us safer.

This really comes down to our fear of profiling. We are afraid of using skills that can be learned to identify people who are giving off signals that they could be dangerous because we don’t want to offend anyone. So instead we rely on technology and random checks to demonstrate our impartiality. In this unprejudiced pretence, we terrorize the weak of our community.

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Post Note: In New Hampshire, they are currently considering making the invasive pat-downs criminal. More here.
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