I opted for a pat down, not a lecture.

I love GSP (Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport), my new home airport.  It’s easy to overlook in a nation of impressive airports, but a recent business trip has underscored a distinct advantage GSP holds over its bigger brothers and sisters – the ease and general experience of flying out of GSP can’t be beat.

I flew to Detroit for business on April 17th and made it from the curb to my gate in under 10 minutes.  That included checking in, waiting for my wife to circle back around so I could hand off a credit card, making my way through security, and finding a seat at my gate to hop on the free wi-fi.

Even with the delay, it was one of the quickest trips I’ve ever made from the curb to my gate, and how many airports actually offer free wi-fi nowadays?

Yes, calling GSP quaint is almost an overstatement, but a guy can definitely get used to the experience.

Unfortunately, my return flight experience wasn’t nearly as enjoyable.  The airline itself wasn’t bad – I always fly and recommend Delta – but the process of actually getting to my flight was extraordinarily unpleasant.  (Never mind the fact that I had to drive 45 minutes to get to the airport and walk a fair bit to get to my gate sans wi-fi.)

The problem was in my experience at the security checkpoint.  DTW and most larger airports in the country use millimeter wave scanners at their checkpoints to see through our clothes in an attempt to detect concealed weapons or explosives on flyers’ bodies that presumably wouldn’t set off the traditional metal detectors.

I’m not particularly concerned about any side effects these machines may have on my personal health – I eat too much junk food and use too many electronics to suddenly cry foul over a body scan.  Furthermore, I’m not particularly bashful about my personal appearance – I’ll be the first to take my shirt off on a Summer day and won’t bat an eye when the good doc asks me to drop my drawers, turn and cough.

However, I am concerned about the encroachment of the government into the privacy of its citizens, and I’m annoyed by the ever increasing measures the TSA takes to harass flyers en route to their gates.  Even with my concern and annoyance, I rarely bring up the topic or even join in when others get on about it.  I suppose I may even have a case of apathetic disenfranchisement – I can’t change anything, and there doesn’t seem to be anything that will.

Even with my decidedly non-radical agenda here, I determined long ago that if I was ever asked to step into a scanner, I would opt for a pat down.  At the very least, I would make my feelings known as a pat down statistic that I hope the TSA is keeping.

Fortunately, in my past years of flying through airports equipped with scanners, I’ve never once had to walk through one.  I did what I assume any semi-competent terrorist would do and opted for security lines where the machines simply weren’t used.  (And I suppose even if a terrorist had to go through one, the weakness of these machines at actually detecting anything has already been documented elsewhere.)

My track record came to a grinding halt on April 21st when I unwittingly entered a security line at DTW that only had a millimeter wave scanner available.  Much to my dismay, the metal detector was roped off, and for some unknown reason, I didn’t bother to go find a different checkpoint to pass through.  I guess I’m both glad I didn’t and wish I had.

Knowing you’re going to opt for a pat down if the need should arise is different from actually doing it.  I’m a generally conscientious citizen, so not doing what is asked of me can actually make me nervous.  Even though the sign before the scanner said I was free to request a pat down, I still felt like I was being bad by requesting one (perhaps with a slight quiver in my voice?), and the agents around me weren’t making it any easier.

I waited for my new best friend to find some gloves and gather my belongings.  He wasn’t pleased, I suppose because I was inconveniencing him.  Furthermore, while I had determined that I would respectfully ask for a pat down and go through it without a word, he had apparently decided to harass me with question after question about what it was I was “afraid of.”

Nearly as soon as he came to lead me to the “enhanced screening area”, the questions began.  Why did you opt for a pat down?  “Oh, just nursing my paranoia I suppose.”  What are you paranoid about?  “Nothing really.  I’m not even worried about any harm from the radiation.”  These are millimeter wave scanners.  There is no radiation.  (Note to himself: as far as I know, you are wrong; not all radiation is harmful, just energetic, and I was making the point that I wasn’t worried about it regardless.)  Are you worried about it keeping pictures?  “Nah, I don’t really care about being naked in front of people.”  Well, it doesn’t do that any more.  (Sure, but for those who care, once bitten…)

So the conversation went, and frankly I began to wonder to myself why they insist on using the device as he swore to me talking point after talking point how much these machines don’t do.  I suppose he really wanted to change my mind, but what came across was harassment – annoying me in return for annoying him by choosing a rightful action that is itself questionably within his rights to perform.

Arms?  Fine.  Chest?  Clear.  Back?  Nothing.  Legs?  Strong – erm, fine.  Ankles?  Clean.  Back up toward the… ahh, that hurt.  Back of the hand to the groin, intentionally rubbed across my genitals presumably to find anything his freaking knuckles can determine isn’t genitalia.  All throughout, the badgering continued until I finally answered his why with, “You know, sometimes you just want to feel another man rub his hands up and down your legs.”

Hah!  It still makes me smile to remember I said it.  It wasn’t a canned line, just my wit serving me well in the heat of the moment.  I suppose I’ll use the line again for its overall effectiveness.  The agent overseeing the patdown thought it was hilarious, and my masseur promptly stopped badgering me with questions.  Swab for explosives came back clean and I was outta there.

Sadly, I don’t think it was simply imaginary pain I felt in my groin the rest of the morning.  I had that faint twist in the gut and phantom ache that lingers for hours after a nut shot, and I couldn’t decide if it was a result of the physical contact or the tension of the experience overall.

Even moreso – I just don’t get why he couldn’t do his job professionally even as I had determined to stand there and receive a pat down in resigned stoicism.  It’s like a prostate exam (God, please don’t let them do that next) – neither you nor your doctor are particularly excited about the prospect, but he lubes, he gets it over with, you clean up, and neither of you mention it again.  It’s business.  It’s professional.

Next time I fly, I’ll be prepared, and perhaps you should be, too.  I actually have had a sports hernia that I will use to request no direct contact to my genitals.  Frankly, it does hurt, and I’d rather drop my pants than have someone noogie my nuts.  Additionally, I will be prepared to provide the real reason for my opt out – I want to make my presence known as one who will not accept any and every privacy invading measure the TSA feels it needs to inflict on American flyers every time they catch a plane.

In another context, I imagine the agent and I could have had a fine conversation about the ins and outs of how the scanners work and why the TSA thinks we should all submit to them.  Such a conversation will necessarily involve statistics on their effectiveness to actually detect illegal items and prevent harm to flyers such as myself.  Additionally, the agent would understand that the onus is on the government to assure its flyers that the measures it introduces are Constitutional, safe, and effective, not on the flyer to simply submit to whatever is asked because someone else told him to.

I rarely do anything I’m told “just because” (much to my wife’s chagrin), and at this point there’s enough egg on the face of the TSA that I find it hard to believe them.  I’m not convinced there is anything to justify the use of millimeter wave scanners, and I’m interested in seeing frank dialogue about the legality of the scans in general.  However, I am convinced that Americans are inconvenienced and in some cases harmed by the latest and greatest measures, and I’d much rather stand against the advance of the government into my privacy than unwittingly open the doors.

I just read in the Greenville Journal that GSP will be renovating and consolidating its security checkpoints.  I’ve already e-mailed the reporter to see what she knows about their plans to introduce new equipment.  I’ll be sure to blog about it when I find out.