A few months ago I was rushing around in a last-minute flurry to prepare for a trip, when I slipped on my basement stairs and sprained my ankle. It hurt, but with some icing and some Advil I was able to walk, and so I set off for the airport.
In the security line I asked for an “opt-out pat-down,” the code phrase for, “I think your backscatter machine is an invasive and unnecessary performance in the grand theater of national security.” When you opt for a pat down, a TSA agent of your gender (God help you if you’re gender queer) gruffly directs you to a table, grabs your luggage from the belt, and instructs you to spread your legs and raise your arms while he/she runs a pair of gloves along your crotch, ass, and waist band. If you’re unlucky, you’ll also get a few unprofessional and indignant remarks, such as: “Why are you making us do this? The machine isn’t even that dangerous.”
Each time, before starting the pat-down, you’ll also be asked: “Do you have any painful or sensitive areas?” Normally my answer is “no.” However, having just rolled my ankle, I said “yes,” pointed to wear it hurt, and expected (naively) that the TSA agent would run her hands especially gently over my fresh wound. Instead, when she reached my ankle, she grabbed it tightly, rubbing it hard and scowling. In the 50 or so pat-downs I’ve received, never has a TSA agent handled a part of my body so roughly, insistently, and with such overt disdain and suspicion.
Needless to say, I felt angry — and I felt pain. When the agent went to run the gloves through the scanner that tests for explosive residue, I bent down to rub my sore ankle. “Don’t move!” she barked. My scan came up clean, she dismissed me with a wave of her hand, and I hobbled off.
I think about this incident often when I travel. I think about being lied to implicitly and misled, about how the question “Does anything hurt?” seems to communicate caring and respect for the bodies moving through the enormous parade of American security. I think about how, instead, that question was used as a litmus test to track down any area I might not want to be touched, any area where I might be concealing… who knows what. I think about how admitting that I felt pain meant that I was treated with less dignity and less compassion than someone who felt none (or did not admit to “weakness”). I think about how my injured body became a site of suspicion, how my wound made me a potential threat. And I think about what in the world I would do if I had chronic pain, or any number of other disabilities. Would my “sick” body be treated as a terrorist threat every time I tried to step onto a plane?