Following Jeffrey Goldberg's reporting on the Transportation Security Administration, I braced myself for a trip from New York to Miami. On the way down, despite the big signs at JFK depicting naked people in translucent clothing and warning that you would look like that, too, in the new backscatter machines, the machines did not appear to be in use, and I went through a regular, old-fashioned metal detector.
The way home was more interesting. While most passengers were being directed through the regular, old-fashioned metal detectors, I was selected for the machine that looked like a cross between a stand-up MRI and something out of some Woody Allen science fiction movie. I had plenty of time before my flight, and submitting without objection to a decision by the government that it has to see me basically naked before I get on an airplane in my own country just runs counter to my basic contrarian personality, so I said, "I want to opt out."
The TSA officer told me to wait and then started repeating, both into his radio and into the general surrounding airport hubbub, "Male opt-out, I got a male opt-out."
Some minutes elapsed, during which about four other people went through the nakedness machine.
I shifted my weight from one foot to the other, then raised my eyebrows at the TSA officer and asked, "How are we doing here"?
He shrugged and repeated "Male opt-out" into the radio.
By this point my wife, who had preceded me through the regulator old-fashioned metal detector, was wondering what had happened to me. I craned my neck so she could see me and mouthed, "I opted out."
Finally, TSA Officer Daniels arrived and asked me to step forward and around to a spot at the end of the luggage conveyor belt, where my wife and her sister were waiting with our luggage. Snapping the blue latex gloves around his wrists, he said, "Alright, I am going to pat you down." He asked me if I had any sores, scrapes or bruises on my body, and I said no. He explained that he was going to use the back of his hands on my groin and inner thighs and the front of his hands everywhere else. I tried to keep a straight face but couldn't suppress a nervous giggle. Not that I was nervous about him finding a bomb on me that I did not have, but nervous about having some total stranger male rubbing his hands, front or back, along my groin and inner thigh until they meet "resistance."
Which he proceeded to do, while my hands were spread-eagled. While that aspect of the procedure was both ticklish and not particularly enjoyable, the most invasive part in my opinion was not actually the groin and inner thigh search but the waist search, in which Officer Daniels ran his blue-latex-glove-clad fingers, the front of them, all around my body inside of my pants waistband.
The whole feel-up was somewhere between a massage and being tickled. Somewhere along the way I was also swiped with one of those acne-pad-style explosive detector patches that the officer then fed into the sniffer machine. I felt pretty violated by the whole procedure, and I can't imagine that Officer Daniels enjoyed it much, either.
When it ended, I returned to my wife, who had collected our belongings from the carry-on baggage conveyor belt. "Do you have the laptop?" I asked?
"What laptop?" she replied. "Where was the laptop?"
I looked in the plastic bins with our stuff, and in the laptop bag, and in the empty plastic bins that were stacked up at the end of the conveyor belt. No laptop.
In the 10 or 15 minutes it had taken to find me a TSA officer to pat me down, and to conduct the pat-down, my laptop, which I had removed from my bag in accordance with TSA procedures and put in its own separate plastic bin, had disappeared.
At this point the TSA agent who was manning the carry-on bag belt noticed I was looking for something, and I explained my laptop was missing. She asked how long ago it went through. I said 10 or 15 minutes. "I was over there being searched," I said. She asked what kind of laptop. A Mac, I said.
At that point a supervisor came over. He asked me what color the computer was and said he would check the lost and found, on the complete other end of the checkpoint area.
He soon returned with my laptop, which I accepted with a grateful sigh of relief. Another traveler asked how my laptop got all the way over there. "I opted out," I explained.
Now, the delay and inconvenience I experienced is preferable to the alternative of being killed by a terrorist bombing. But as invasive as the pat-down was, there were parts the officer did not feel, and I don't feel much safer by the whole thing. I'd rather give up some of my personal data privacy to the government and answer some personal, El Al-style questions about why I am traveling, than have to surrender my physical body space privacy to the government to create the illusion of safety. Doubtless the companies who make these newfangled scanners (and their lobbyists) feel differently. And in general I am all for technological progress — the bomb-sniffing acne pad-style technology, for example, doesn't bother me at all. But there's nothing that quite brings home the power of the government over the individual quite like the sensation of some stranger with blue latex gloves feeling around against the skin inside the front of your pants waistband.