By Bill Press
Tribune Media Services
It used to be my favorite holiday. Too bad we didn’t get to celebrate it this year. Thanksgiving 2010 was canceled.
And no wonder. Thanksgiving was canceled because nobody could get to Grandma’s house. Lines at the airport were a mile long. Flights were delayed for hours. Millions of passengers refused to go through security. Flight crews rebelled, and some airports even shut down. All because TSA agents were touching, feeling, fondling, groping, stroking, petting, and fingering our private parts in ways that would get anyone else not on the government payroll arrested as a sexual pervert.
At least, that’s what the national media was reporting. Here’s Juan Williams, for example, on Fox News: “Prepare for a travel nightmare if you’re getting on a plane to go see your family for Thanksgiving next week. Twenty-four million Americans will go through a living hell just because they want to visit their loved ones!” Yet not a word of it was true.
Media attention and public ire were directed against new pat-down procedures introduced without fanfare by TSA as part of its rollout of new full-body scanners in many airports. Yet a closer look at what was really going on soon revealed that all the media hype was, in fact, nothing but — media hype. Never was so much made of so little.
First, the long delays projected for airports never materialized because most passengers complied with new rules and because TSA agents were so well trained and so efficient. ABC News reported it took passengers only an average of nine minutes to clear security in airports around the country — on the busiest travel days of the year. At Boston’s Logan Airport, passengers were hustled through security in just two minutes!
Plus, not all travelers had to fear a possible pat down for a very simple reason: so far, full-body scanners are only located in 70 out of 453 airports. And even in those 70 airports, passengers have a choice. First, they can choose to go through the old-fashioned metal detectors, which are still in service in most airports. Or they can choose the body scanner. It’s only if they refuse to go through either that they’re pulled aside for a pat down, which has happened to only 3 percent of travelers.
And, believe me, the pat down is nothing to fear. I fly often. But because I have a pacemaker, I can’t go through the old metal detectors. Which means I’ve been patted down hundreds of times. It’s no big deal. It takes about two minutes. They run their hands down your arms, over your body, up your legs and then, when they get to the “sensitive parts,” they use the back of their hands. No groping. And, if you’re not comfortable about being patted down in public, you can always request a private screening.
What got lost in all this debate is why TSA introduced the full-body scanners in the first place. Again, shame on the media. Remember the “Underwear Bomber”? It wasn’t so long ago — Christmas Day 2009 — that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 as it neared Detroit on a flight from Amsterdam. He was only able to board the plane because a standard metal detector failed to pick up explosives sewed into the lining of his underwear.
At the time, Republicans accused President Obama of not doing enough to keep Americans safe and they demanded more stringent security at airports. Now that Obama has rushed to put new measures in place, Republicans accuse him of doing too much.
It’s a classic case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” And not just from the right. Some liberals have also condemned Obama for endorsing TSA’s new full-body scanners because high-paid lobbyists in Washington represent their manufacturers. How silly can you get? Whether it’s cheese, scanners, or passenger jets, there’s not a product made in America that doesn’t have a lobbyist presence in Washington.
Sadly, as uncomfortable as they may be for some, today’s rare airport pat-downs are just a sign of the times we live in and a reminder of the price we pay to fly. Which is, remember, another choice. We don’t have to fly. Nobody has a right to fly. We can always choose to take the train, drive, walk, or swim.
© 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.