Janet's Choice: One Checkpoint, Two Evils

Fortunately, I don't have to fly anywhere this Thanksgiving. Still, I've started to dread the airport even more than usual, and I am not looking forward to the new "choose your own adventure" awaiting me the next time I board a plane. I call it "Janet's Choice" in honor of Homeland Security Director Janet Napolitano. The choice is between a virtual strip search or a full-body grope. I can mull over the decision until January, when I depart from my home airport, Newark Liberty International, to land in Las Vegas for an ACLU conference.

I've professionally spoken out in the last couple of weeks against use of the body scanners, working with legislators on both sides of the aisle to call for an end to the practice. Among other ills, the machines expose our naked bodies and some medical conditions. They open the door to exploitation and voyeurism, all without any evidence to support their usefulness in fighting terrorism. Doctors and scientists have warned against their use for health concerns.

But on a personal level, separate from my role as a civil liberties advocate, Janet's Choice resonates for me. Behind door #1, I fear the voyeur: some guy looking at my scan in a hidden room, criticizing my body or sharing the images. Behind door #2, I fear the groper: the TSA agent touching my body wherever she wishes. This is especially hard for me. I am one of the millions of Americans who have been looked at, photographed or touched against our will as victims of sexual abuse or assault.

No one should be forced to make Janet's Choice. But for sexual abuse or assault survivors, it triggers stockpiled waves of trauma and fear.

Like many victims of abuse, I have anxiety about people touching me or seeing my body without my express consent. The prospect of Janet's Choice haunts me. The government, without any external supervision, has all of the power, and the person being searched has none. The person being searched bears the burden of proof, not the entity capable of abusing its power. Add TSA's authority to assert control with its threat -- "if you don't submit to this non-consensual search, you can't travel where you'd like" (and may be subjected to arrest and a fine). And the dynamic becomes disturbingly familiar for victims of abuse. The fact that underpaid and undertrained TSA employees, who routinely fail to find weapons and dummy explosives, are the ones implementing Janet's Choice adds insult to injury.

Blogs about Janet's Choice have already cropped up to tell the stories of tears and trauma when confronting the body scan.

Too often, victims of sex abuse hesitate to speak out. None of us should feel ashamed of what happened to us, because, clearly, it was not our fault, but it takes more than knowledge to erase the stigma and the scars. Our silence disguises our numbers. In a recent two-part special about sex abuse of boys, Oprah Winfrey revealed that one in every six boys experiences sexual abuse. For girls, the rate must be even higher. The vulnerability and invisibility of abuse victims gives Americans even more reason to consider whether we want to make an abusive experience a prerequisite for the right to travel.

Americans seem to agree. Last week in my capacity as ACLU-NJ executive director, I took part in a bi-partisan press conference to introduce resolutions to Congress and the TSA to reconsider use of the scanners. Since then people across the belief spectrum have shared with me their expressions of gratitude. In Trenton, a family that happened upon the press conference while visiting the Statehouse stopped me in the cafeteria afterward to thank me for the ACLU's advocacy; the mom confided that she did not want to expose her colostomy bag to a stranger. A professor from Virginia emailed to thank us, assuring me that while he rarely agrees with the ACLU, he fully supports our work in this case. An emergency physician from Rochester, New York left a phone message asking us to keep publicizing our objections so that other people who oppose the machines "know we're not alone."

The reasons to reject the routine use of body scanners are overwhelming -- from privacy rights to health concerns to protecting victims from trauma to the machines' extremely questionable value as a tool against terrorism. Our top government officials have a duty to respond to this breadth of concerns. Unfortunately, when it comes to the concerns of sex abuse or assault victims, the response is, as usual, lacking. TSA representative Nick Kimball claimed in Newsweek that TSA officers are trained to ensure respectful screening for everyone, but as the article's author notes, "That's cold comfort for many men and women, who, thanks to the new security regulations, are feeling much less safe than before."

I'm not sure what one can say about a government that demonstrates fundamental disrespect for the privacy, safety and dignity of its citizens, not to mention the standards of the nation. I wish the federal government would put as much effort into addressing the social and economic injustices that create terrorism as it does into enforcing systems of compliance that create an illusion of security. But in the meantime, I'm not willing to forfeit my right to privacy.