Even Death Won’t Save You From a TSA Pat Down

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Transportation Security Administration (TSA) workers screen passengers at O’Hare International Airport on November 08, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois.

Transportation Security Administration (TSA) workers screen passengers at O’Hare International Airport on November 08, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois.
Photo: Scott Olson (Getty Images)

Getting through airport security is always stressful, and certainly doesn’t provide a feeling of human dignity for the shoeless passengers being subjected to evasive searches and public questioning. But this in-depth report from the Verge makes being an agent of the Transportation Security Administration also sounds fairly dehumanizing.

I can’t say enough about this absolutely bananas report, which starts off with an almost unimaginable encounter recounted by former Transportation Security Officer Jai Cooper. A passenger passed away after check-in, but the family still brought her through Cooper’s security as they wanted to get their loved one out of the country they were visiting. It turns out, the dead body could still fly…but the underpaid, overworked Transportation Security Officers would need to “follow protocol”:

Her colleagues checked the corpse according to the official pat-down process. With gloves on, they ran the palms of their hands over the collar, the abdomen, the inside of the waistband, and the lower legs. Then, they checked the body’s “sensitive areas” — the breasts, inner thighs, and buttocks — with “sufficient pressure to ensure detection.”

Only then was the corpse cleared to proceed into the secure part of the terminal.

Not even death can exempt you from TSA screening.

It only gets wilder from there. The TSA is in absolute shambles it seems, with passengers regularly calling officers, the lowest paid in the entire federal system, “…traitors, Nazis, or child molesters, even to their faces.” And it’s not just angry passengers officers have to contend with. Sometimes it’s their managers or the agency itself:

In 2009, the director of security at Dulles Airport forced a top-performing instructor, whose degenerative disability left him unable to stand for long periods, to work a front-line checkpoint role. Since he couldn’t do the job, he had no choice but to request a disability retirement. In 2014, a supervisor at the Charleston airport attempted to fire a TSO who reported him for falsifying his own time cards and committing safety violations. In 2018, three TSA administrators working in Hawaii raised operational concerns about several of the islands’ airports. Soon afterward, they were reassigned to the mainland — Seattle, Los Angeles, and Burbank — with only one business day’s notice and no regard for their families or their lives in Hawaii.

Sometimes, supervisors don’t even need a good reason to humiliate a TSO. In a YouTube video titled “TSA’s Revolving Door Culture,” former TSO Fazle Hasnain recounts a duty manager who yelled at him in front of an entire checkpoint just because he had called her by her first name.

When they’re not worrying about vindictive bosses, TSA employees can still lose their job for doing the right thing. One of Scott Becker’s colleagues stopped a physical assault on a Federal Air Marshal, only to receive an official reprimand for touching a passenger outside of the screening process, which is technically against TSA policy.

That’s not to say the TSOs are just poor, put upon workers. Like agents of any federal agency, they play an active role in dehumanizing and abusing others. With the TSA, it’s to the point that even the full body scanners are programmed with bigotry in mind. The immeasurably wonderful Victoria Scott, who has written for Jalopnik in the past and now works over at some website called The Drive experiences this first hand almost every time she travels:

Because she’s a trans woman, Scott is virtually guaranteed a TSA pat-down when she goes through security. The TSA uses what it calls “Advanced Imaging Technology” body scanners “to detect threat objects carried on persons entering airport sterile areas.” In order to work properly, however, the scanner has to know your gender so it can use its “gender-specific algorithms” to highlight “areas on the body warranting further screening.” And there are only two options: male or female.

Scott always causes the scanners to alarm.

“I fly dressed very femme and wearing makeup because that’s how I am,” she says. “When they scan me as a woman, my crotch sets it off. When they use the male scan button, my bra and my breasts set it off. No matter what I do short of getting surgery, I can’t pass because every time it scans my body, it recognizes an anomaly. They’re usually like, ‘Oh, something in your groin region set it off. We need to pat you down.’”

Usually, she just endures the ritual humiliation of a pat-down so she can get on with her day. But a recent TSA experience at her home checkpoint has made her a lot more anxious about flying.

After setting off the body scanner, she went to the pat-down area, where two officers were waiting for her: a trainee and a supervisor. During the pat-down, Scott remarked that this happens to her a lot because she flies very often.

“Well, do you enjoy it?” asked the supervisor. “Because if you don’t enjoy it, you could dress as your birth gender.”

Scott was stunned. Here was a law enforcement officer basically asking her if she enjoyed getting felt up every time she flew.

“I so badly wanted to say something — anything at all,” she says. “But I couldn’t. Because she can ruin my day. She can detain me and keep me from going on my trip. I have no power.”

Scott is not alone in her experiences. Tales of racial profiling of passengers and high turn over rates amongst officers paints a truly depressing picture of the failure of this $9.7 billion a year boondoggle that doesn’t really play much of a role in deterring terrorism—the entire purpose of the Administration’s creation.

Read the whole thing over on the Verge.

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