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Will My Breasts Blow Up this Airplane?

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OXFORD – Just when it seemed that America’s “Homeland Security state” could not get more surreal, the United States Transportation Security Administration has rolled out a costly Scylla and Charybdis at major airports: either you accept dangerous doses of radiation and high-resolution imaging of your naked body, or, worried about the health risks of cumulative radiation, you opt out of the new full-body x-ray machines (rapidly dubbed “porno-scanners”).

But if you opt out, you are now subjected, as I was last week, to an extraordinarily sexualized and invasive “pat-down” by TSA officials. “I will now touch your private parts,” a very uncomfortable female TSA official said to me when I flew out of New York’s Kennedy Airport. And, sure enough, I experienced the invasive touching of genitals and breasts that is now standard policy for US travelers.

Men report handling of their testicles and penises, TSA officials are instructed to open and peer down waistbands, and YouTube is now rife with videos of frightened children being – to describe it accurately – sexually molested, though this is the last thing most TSA officials wish to do.

Are we free not to be radiated or groped? We are not. Passengers who have refused to be patted down on their genitals have been handcuffed to chairs. Each new terror alert or high-tech innovation, it seems, makes new demands on our liberty in the name of security. But travelers’ recent experiences in the US should give security officials elsewhere good reason to avoid implementing similar policies.

In fact, America’s bizarre new policy is likely to remain unique among airports in the industrialized countries, if not the entire world. Israeli security officials, for example, scoff at genital pat-downs, which they say accomplish nothing.

That is not exactly true. Twenty-four per cent of women have been sexually assaulted, or molested by a trusted adult in childhood or adolescence – as have 17% of men. Many of these survivors will be re-traumatized when strangers grope their genitals. And children will be placed most at risk of profound negative effects.

Years of sensitive educational outreach have finally made it the norm for American children to understand that their bodies are their own, that adults should not touch them intimately or in ways that make them uncomfortable, and that they can expect to be protected from such violation. By desensitizing children to sexually inappropriate touching, the pat-downs are destroying those hard-won gains.

It gets worse. TSA officials have been advised to tell small children that the sexual pat-downs are a game. To anyone who has ever counseled survivors of childhood sexual abuse, this should set off alarm bells: the most common ploy of sexual predators is to portray the abuse as a “game.” As Ken Wooden of the organization Child Lures Prevention puts it, the TSA’s “incredibly misinformed and misguided” advice “is completely contrary to what we in the sexual-abuse prevention field have been trying to accomplish for the past 30 years.”

Americans, for once, are fighting back against this latest violation of their rights. Two states, New Jersey and Idaho, recently introduced legislation to seek to opt out of the new policy. Questions about the change in practice have reached US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – who admitted that she herself would resist a sexual pat-down – and President Barack Obama.

So what led to a policy that is appalling to citizens, damaging to children, and ineffective for improving our security? Welcome to America’s current reality, in which threats are hyped so that a handful of insiders can make a killing.

Shortly after former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff made the rounds of TV shows arguing in favor of such measures to thwart “bad guys,” one of his consulting firm’s clients, Rapiscan, won the $350 million contract to provide the full-body x-ray machines. As one TSA supervisor said to me after my own sexualized pat-down, “This is about bureaucracy – people trying to cover their asses – and there is a ton of money involved as well.”

Meanwhile, the supervisor confirmed – as has online discussion by TSA employees – that workers ordered to molest travelers are traumatized, too. One army veteran said that he cries every day from the resistance and outcry he now faces from passengers, and that the stress is worse than being on active military deployment. Others say they feel degraded and ashamed. Indeed, TSA workers are now working in a sexually hostile environment, which is illegal.

Finally, one must ask: is there a psychological element to the US requirement of submission to genital groping by uniformed officials? It is impossible to forget the many strange sexual twists of Bush administration policies, from forced nudity of prisoners – which post-Abu Ghraib records show was systemic, not an aberration – to the sexual threats and sexual assaults against such prisoners, the sexualized hazing rituals and accounts of rape practiced with impunity by contractors, and so on.

I am not suggesting that sexually degrading practices are a conscious part of the TSA’s new policy. But the history of closing societies shows that nudity and forced or degrading sexualized practices become, consciously or unconsciously, part of the state’s consolidation of power.

It is not too extreme to put this into context: billions of dollars in profit now depend on insiders like Chertoff maintaining US society in a state of overhyped alert that demands increasingly costly technology. Maintaining these profits requires a population conditioned by this theater of fear to submit to anything – even the sexual quasi-abuse of themselves and their children.

Naomi Wolf is a political activist and social critic whose most recent book is Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.

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