Security Theatre

I went through patdowns on my way through security several times this year because I refused to go through scanners, which are becoming standard at most US airports now, unfortunately. Along the way, I noted a lot of interesting patterns in terms of who is pulled out of line for a patdown, and how patdowns are handled between airports and officers. This procedure supposedly performed for safety is perhaps the ultimate emblem of security theatre, involving an intense violation of autonomy, privacy, and personal space.

It’s primarily performed for the purpose of keeping passengers compliant, meek, and afraid, and it’s increasingly evident that it doesn’t actually serve the stated function, which is to improve security measures. If the goal of a patdown is to determine whether a passenger is carrying or wearing anything that might be hazardous, the patdowns I’ve had have been conducted in a way that isn’t at all consistent with that goal, and the way passengers are selected for patdowns also isn’t consistent.

Numerous security experts have talked about the fact that the patdown is pointless and absurd. I’d go a step further and argue that there’s an element of danger to it as well, because if this is what we’re relying on to keep airports safe, airports are not terribly safe[1. And yes, I am aware that the TSA has hidden safety measures and that the patdown is primarily staged as performance to make people feel secure, not as an actual security measure, but still, it is intended to catch security violations.]. And no, this is not a request for even more invasive searches, like requiring people to strip before being allowed to board a plane. It’s simply a note that security theatre is pointless, and that many less invasive and more productive methods have been proposed but discarded, which is a reminder about why the TSA does this, and why the government continues to promote security theatre.

This is not about your safety, it is about both your complacency with civil rights violations, and your acculturation into a landscape of perennial fear.

On my way out of Madison in May, I noted that of the people selected for patdowns, every single one other than myself was a woman of colour. I was chosen because I refused the scanner. I have absolutely no doubt that if I’d gone through, I wouldn’t have been asked to step aside for a closer inspection. I also noted, since some of those women had just been at WisCon, that some of the women selected were publishing professionals who are very well-known in their fields, representing an extremely low risk in terms of the psychological profile of someone likely to try to take down an airplane.

Unless very fishy things are going on at the Carl Brandon Society, I’d say that a woman with an acclaimed multiple book series, a stable publishing contract, and other great things going on in her life is unlikely to become a suicide bomber. That includes politically active science fiction authors who, yes, do criticise the government and discuss issues like security theatre, sometimes embedding these very themes into their work; being a patriot, I always say, involves criticism of your government and the place you live, whether you’re a long-time resident, visiting guest, or anything else.

As legions of white people went through the scanner with nary a peep from the security personnel, we waited for our patdowns. We were kept apart from each other and our belongings, and went through one by one as various officers came up to pat us down and then test their gloves for bomb residue. We all stared silently at each other across the crowded landscape of the security checkpoint. It hadn’t escaped our notice that there was a glaring demographic misrepresentation among these supposedly randomly selected people chosen by allegedly highly trained TSA officers.

My patdown was extremely perfunctory, and I didn’t have a chance to ask the women pulled aside for screening if theirs had been as lackadaisical as mine. The TSA agent barely touched me during the examination, which I was appreciative of for personal comfort reasons, but amused by if the goal was to identify contraband on my body. I probably could have been carrying a fairly large object that would have gone entirely undetected; she certainly didn’t notice that I had a pill case in my pocket, for example.

She didn’t seem very focused during the examination in terms of actually checking for threats; it felt, again, like a performance, for me and the other passengers (I was in public, which I make a point of doing during screenings because I want other passengers to be confronted with the ridiculousness of patdowns, and I would feel very uncomfortable getting one without witnesses). It was staged for the benefit of the people around me, not for anyone’s actual safety.

How were the women treated, I wondered. Were they patted down in the same extremely loose and casual way that I was, or did the TSA agents clamp down on their limbs and run their hands as high and low as possible, taking care to maintain tight contact the whole way? I was the odd one out in this scenario because I essentially self-selected for patdown: My choice was scanner, patdown, or walk away from the airport. As such, I didn’t fit into what is obviously the usual profiling narrative: I wasn’t a person of colour traveling alone, having the audacity to use supposedly public resources, to pay for airline travel to transport me from one place to another.

People who want to claim this kind of security is a. necessary and b. valid in some way clearly aren’t spending a lot of time inspecting the ways in which these examinations are conducted, and the kind of training offered to the people who perform it. There was nothing secure about my examination at Madison—not least because they forgot to put me through the metal detector.