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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Airport Security Grope

By Kathy & George Lepp


As a working photographer and lecturer, I fly a lot. The escalating levels of airport security and luggage (read camera gear, not clothing!) restrictions became just another annoying aspect of air travel, a necessary trade-off for rapid access to remote destinations. Kathy and I developed a check-point routine that typically succeeded in getting ourselves and all that photography gear safely through screening and onto the plane, only a little crankier than when we started the day. But this week TSA tightened the screws a little more, and now they've gone too far.

I have metal in both of my knees, the result of too much tennis in my early years and many years of carrying a heavy backpack of photo equipment over uneven terrain. This means that every time I fly--usually several times a month--I get special attention from TSA at the many airports lacking body scanners, including the one in my city. As Kathy shepherds our stuff along the conveyor belt, I get pulled aside for special, hands-on attention from a TSA agent. In the past this meant that I'd be blessed by the magic wand and lightly patted down. Not my favorite massage, but tolerable. Sometimes my photo gear was also gathered up and swabbed with a pad and tested for residue. Kathy would watch, muttering under her breath about the abandonment of civil liberties in exchange for a false sense of security, but still, the interruption was typically brief and courteous.

Today, TSA crossed some boundaries that changed everything.

It started with a whole new orientation speech on what the TSA agent was going to do to me. Hell, I had memorized the old spiel and now they were changing it. All my gear was brought into the area to be swabbed and examined, and then the agent started to pat me down. No wand, just the hands...everywhere! Up the legs, into the groin (even a jab into the genitals) down and up both legs. Other travelers stopped to watch, some gasping in surprise. Kathy protested from outside the enclosure: "Tell him you’re married, and only your wife gets to touch you there.” He laughed, but pushed on. This was getting WAAAAAY too personal. The TSA agent placed his gloves into the magic spectra sniffer. Then they collected me, my photo gear and another TSA agent of higher rank and without explanation escorted me to a private room where they groped me again and swabbed everything again, decided that I'm not a terrorist after all, invited me to file a complaint, and let me go, with nearly an hour lost.

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