They are already calling it ‘equal opportunity harassment’, as it is men leading the revolt against the new security procedures at US airports, described in officialese as ‘enhanced pat-downs’. The fuss all began when furious software engineer John Tyner uploaded his now infamous video ‘don’t touch my junk’ onto You-tube, hitting a national nerve. As Jen Phillips, in Mother Jones, put it: “For years, women have complained about agents copping a feel … Now that a bunch of guys are crying foul, the media is suddenly all over it.”
Maybe it’s also because yesterday was the biggest travel day of the year. Maybe this is a handy distraction from the rather more worrying fears about potential war in Korea. But turn on the news and you can’t escape the endless voxpops of angry passengers complaining about the intrusive search methods. It’s even turned into a holiday headache for Barack Obama, when he thought he could kick back with Michelle and the kids and enjoy a plate of turkey.
Gallup’s latest poll for USA Today shows 57 per cent of air travellers are not “bothered or angry” by the new Transport Security Association procedures, with new all-body scanners rolled out at hundreds of airports across the country. But doctors have started fretting about what happens to folk like cancer patients who could be affected by the radiation.
A majority of people are less happy about the pat-downs. The horror stories that are flying around include alleged “shakedowns” of nuns, grandmothers and pregnant women. A three year old child had her teddy bear seized and searched.
Amid the fuss, politicians have been quick to voice their two-cents. Leading Republican congressmen John Mica and Thomas Petri — about to take senior roles in charge of aviation issues — are now demanding that the pat-down procedure is limited to a very few cases. Last week New Jersey legislators declared the searches were in breach of the Fourth Amendment privacy rules. And New York’s city council wants to ban use of scanners within the city altogether.
Yesterday some protest groups tried to declare a national “opt out day”. They called on passengers to demand a pat-down instead of going through the machines, which would make the system pretty much unworkable. One woman protester was spotted in LA sporting a bikini. Others wore kilts and racy underwear. TSA boss John Pistole urged travellers to be sensible, appealing on behalf of those “who just want to get back to their loved ones for the holidays”.
In the end, it seems turnout for this slightly self-defeating day of action has been rather sparse: barely anyone has tried to avoid the scanners and airport queues as of lunchtime were reportedly moving quickly.
Some experts, according to Politico, are urging more extensive background checks as an alternative — rather like you get when you fly to Israel, perhaps. They quote a former Bush security advisor, Fran Townsend, explaining why physical pat-downs are quite so disliked.
People associate being physically touched with something that only happens to criminals, argues Townsend. “All of a sudden grandma goes through and she’s getting groped. She’s resentful because it’s not what she thinks of as her country.”
“I think Americans want to be supportive of counter-terror measures,” she continues, “but they need to be persuaded that what is being asked of them is fair, reasonable and effective.”
Even over the holidays, it’s politics as usual. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs has promised that public feedback will be taken into account, declaring that security procedures are still ‘evolving’. In a lengthy statement Barack Obama said that as President, he didn’t have to go through security, although he insisted he was trying to find a way of making the procedures less invasive, while reminding people that this was all about trying to protect their safety.
At least he has a few days off to get away from it all, after the traditional turkey-pardoning on the White House lawn. Yes, a pair of birds, named Apple and Cider, have been spared the Thanksgiving stuffing. The President’s verdict: that after the midterm election disaster, and now the pat-down furore, “it feels good to escape at least one shellacking this November.” Happy turkey day.
Felicity Spector is a senior producer at Channel 4 News.