“No?” He looked at me right in the eyes, with surprise and suspicion.
”No.” Clear as I could be, unflinching as the short but powerful words escaped my mouth. Two letters, one syllable, and no doubt as to what I meant or what I wanted to mean. No means no. It is my right to say no, contrary to popular belief that one does not have a right to say so. It is my right as an ordinary member of the public not to be subject to a humiliating and dehumanising strip search in the name of safeguarding aviation security.
“I will have to conduct a thorough search, sir,” the officer said.
”Go ahead,” I said, and spread out my arms like a bird with ruffled feathers caught in a tangle of wires. I cannot remember the last time I set off the alarm. I had no idea what had triggered the metal detector to beep, because I knew I emptied my pockets of everything and anything, metallic or otherwise. An initial secondary search through a handheld detector device failed to find anything incriminating (not that there was anything incriminating in the first place…). And now, standing in the looming shadow of the full body scanner, resolutely I said “No”.
The officer stepped away momentarily to put on blue latex gloves. Slowly, I eyed the body scanner, a contraption made of cold transparent glass, standing in the centre of the security zone that looked like a cross between a time machine and transporter in the Star Trek universe. I felt my skin crawl and I shivered as I recalled the paper I had written about the device.
On Christmas Day 2009, Umar Farouk attempted to smuggle an explosive device in his underpants onboard an airplane from Amsterdam to Detroit. Luckily, the “Underwear Bomber’s” ‘foul’ plan was botched. Unlucky for the rest of the flying public, the full body scanner has gradually been introduced at airports around the world with the ability to conduct a virtual body search.
Through the use of low-intensity radiation, the body scanner produces an image of the passenger’s body like that of an X-ray. The technology penetrates clothing and reveals every minute detail of a person’s body. This image is seen by a security officer who assesses whether there are objects that pose a threat to flying. Whether it is the size and shape of your genitals, or whether you have any body implants or whether you have undergone extensive surgery, it all shows up on the scanned image of your body. No doubt, in the battle against terrorism, our right to privacy has again been eroded.
It may be justifiable if the body scanner does work and does have the ability to detect suspicious objects. But the problem is that the machine is only around 50% effective, and experts claim that the extremely intrusive technology would probably not have been able to detect the “bulge” in Umar Farouk’s underwear. In fact, the body scanner is useless at detecting objects that have been swallowed or hidden in body crevices. Even the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism has resolutely spoken out against the body scanner, calling it a rushed and rash decision by governments which want to give the public the impression that they are doing “something”, when in truth the technology is ridiculously expensive and disproportionately privacy-invasive. In my research into the introduction of the body scanner in the European Union, Canada and the United States, I came across serious misgivings about way the body scanner has been introduced without much public debate or parliamentary oversight, which is alarming as the device clearly violates the fundamental right of an individual to privacy and personal integrity. Even so, the UK has made it mandatory for passengers who have been selected to go through the body scanner (those who refuse will be denied boarding…), while the US has announced that by 2014 the device will be used for all primary screening of passengers
“I will need to touch your buttocks, sir,” he said. I nodded, and deep down imagined that, perhaps after much heated discussion and protracted debate, the word “buttocks” appears as the legally sanctioned and politically correct terminology in some official government guideline for conducting a physical search. I felt his hands down the rim of my pants, extend to the edge of my underwear, and creep along the length and contours of my entire body. Meanwhile, lights on the touch-screen of the full body scanner blinked and blinked, eager and restlessly wondering who next will fall victim to its all-seeing eyes.
“Thank you, sir,” he said, as the gloves came off with a loud sounding slap against his fingers. The sound of the slap reverberated in the security area, and beyond. A slap on the face of governments, a slap against the dignities of ordinary members of the traveling public, because in this devious game of trying to out-smart and out-pace one another, terrorists have managed to win the battle not by inflicting more death or injury, but by instilling fear and suspicion.
The full body scanner is the latest weapon to be unveiled in the combat against terrorism, one that is justified in the name of public safety, in the name of safeguarding public security. A weapon that is costly and that the mere sight of which seems to evoke awe and deterrence, but that is actually a “loud sounding nothing” in the long run. Like many weapons in war, often the devastating damage is collateral, and the body scanner is yet another machinery that forces you and I to give away the very freedoms and rights that are so cherished in our democratic societies. Ironically, whenever asked to be body scanned, the proper pose to strike is to stand still and hold up your arms and hands as if in surrender.
After a few minutes of a full pat-down search, the officer found nothing, because there was nothing to be found. I picked up my backpack, which contained a bottle of lethal tap water and a deadly chapstick, pulled up my jeans, buckled up my belt, and walked away. Walked away with a “No” that still echoed and that had perhaps taken the security officer by surprise.
But in saying “No”, I also walked away with my dignity to be respected and treated like the human individual that I am.
– “Fondling and groping”… is this the future of airport security?
– A girl’s online appeal… “My body is my temple”.
– What can you see? Or, more correctly, what can THEY see?
– They lied… the body scanner CAN store images and store them on a file.
– German protesters go (almost) naked to protest the body scanner.