I'm a 1K flyer, meaning I fly over 100,000 miles a year with United, and consider myself fairly inured to the indignities of travel by now. But, going through my first Whole Body Back-Scatter X-ray at the Denver airport recently took frequent flying to a whole new level of creepiness.
The Homeland Security people obviously put a lot of thought into the implementation of this latest supposed "advance" in aircraft terror prevention.
Before the entrance to the X-ray chamber there was a little sign depicting fuzzy, colorless images of a stripped-down man and woman, which I suppose were meant to put us at ease by suggesting that what the examiners see is not the least bit personal or prurient.
If so, it didn't work. The depersonalized photos of the little nudes just reminded me of those grisly photos of concentration camp survivors, their bodies wasted by starvation, gaunt faces devoid of expression.
I could have refused, of course. But from what I’ve read, X-ray resisters risk penalties like extended, detailed grilling by Transportation Security Agency personnel and even police, plus a full-body pat-down. For all I know you could wind up being held for questioning and missing your flight, and I wanted to get home for the weekend.
As I entered the tall white chamber, with its automatic doors on front and back, a short, unobtrusive honey-haired female agent, clearly selected and trained for the task, approached me and gently showed me how to form a diamond with my fingers and raise my hands overhead.
The process itself was quick and painless. While I waited in the chamber, she chatted me up about the nature of my visit, keeping one eye fixed for the signal from whoever was inspecting my naked image that I was cleared to go.
A colleague who followed after me emerged from the chamber shaking her head like a cat with wet whiskers. "I never went through that before," she said.
She'll get used to it.
On the other hand, I happen to know that this young woman is hoping to start a family. What happens then? Obviously she cannot safely be X-rayed. But how do TSA agents know whether a young woman who claims to be two months pregnant know whether to believe her? Will they be handing out pregnancy test kits? (If claiming pregnancy means you get to skip the X-ray, doesn’t this just mean the next terrorist, instead of an underpants bomber, will be a comely young bra-or-panty bomber?
And how safe are these X-rays anyway? For my part, I’m already paranoid enough about exposure to free radicals (not to be confused with my editor) up in the stratosphere caused by the higher ambient radiation at that altitude. Now, I have to worry about getting zapped by what has to be a pretty powerful dose of radiation at zero elevation just to get on board. Sometime I’d like to see the actuarial stats on dying of “terminal” cancer versus from a terrorist attack on a plane.
Ironically, what is supposed to make us safer may actually be upping our risk of illness or death.
Plus, although it’s been a while, I haven't forgotten my high school Orwell. This security stuff is really getting out of hand, and it’s not just about airport X-rays.