Like most infrequent air travelers, Vicki Burton just wants to get through security without causing a scene. So on a recent flight from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Miami, she obediently stepped into the airport's full-body scanner, held her arms up and waited for the agent to wave her through.
Instead, a female screener was summoned to give Burton an "enhanced" pat-down. "My breasts were patted down right there in front of God and everybody," she says. "I wasn't even afforded the privacy of a screen. I was so stunned, I was just mute. What do you say without being arrested? What should I have done?"
Good question. To paraphrase Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, she should have said something.
Why do people keep their mouths closed when they feel violated? A combination of powerful motivators keeps air travelers quiet. Only by understanding these influences can we end them.
Reason #1: you're not crazy, are you?
Many passengers are afraid that if they speak up, they'll end up as the hysterical passenger on YouTube -- reacting irrationally to what many consider "rational" airport security.
I wrote about this incident after it happened. Although there were good reasons for her reaction, according to her son who taped the entire episode, she was nonetheless tarred as a loonie by TSA supporters (read the comments on her video if you doubt me).
Reason #2: everyone else is doing it
Another effective tool of persuasion: peer pressure. Everyone else is going through the scanner; everyone else is getting patted down. What's your problem? Don't you care if there's a 9/11 sequel?
Besides, American airport security is the "gold standard," isn't it?
I encountered these faulty arguments the first and only time I was prodded into a full-body scanner. It was months before the opt-out protest, and the devices were still being tested in only a handful of airports. A friendly TSA agent told me I had nothing to worry about. "We've all been through them, everyone else is going through them and you won't feel a thing," she assured me.
Well, if everyone is going through them, then what do I have to worry about?
Peer pressure -- the fact that no one else seems to be complaining -- keeps you quiet when your conscience tells you to speak up.
Reason #3: you'll miss your plane
The final, and perhaps the most persuasive trick, is the implied threat that if you resist, you'll miss your flight. Unfortunately, it's not an empty threat, and the TSA agent screening you knows it. If a blueshirt believes your attitude is anything less than docile, you could be subjected to a retaliatory wait time.
It doesn't help that airlines are unforgiving when their passengers miss a flight -- a "no-show" in airline parlance. Often, air travelers either have to pay for a new ticket at an expensive "walk-up" fare or get sent to their destination by a less convenient route, missing appointments or a valuable vacation time. No one wants that.
Had Burton stopped, asked to speak with a supervisor and filed a report, she would have been threatened with these three possibilities: becoming a poster girl for crazy, being made to feel like a problem passenger or missing her flight.
It wasn't an anomaly. On her return flight, TSA agents did exactly the same thing to her.
Time to say something
This has to end. There's no evidence that patting down passengers like Burton has made air travel any safer. The only thing it's accomplished is to erode a number of constitutional rights we once took for granted, say critics.
If invasive, prison-style pat-downs are accepted by air travelers, then who knows what other kinds of searches the TSA might someday try?
The agency has ruled out more invasive searches, at least for now. But in a recent poll, one-third of Americans said they would be in favor of cavity searches to board a plane. No, you didn't read that wrong. Cavity searches.
The next time a TSA agent asks you to do something you're uncomfortable with, say something. You won't just be helping yourself, but all of the passengers who pass through the checkpoint after you. And if enough passengers speak up, the TSA might stop treating us like inmates when we exercise our constitutional right to travel.
It can't happen soon enough.