It is standard fare: the excitement of a flight-based vacation tempered by the prospect of wending one’s way through the layers of security imposed by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Actually, dealing with security issues begins at home, when we have to remember to not inadvertently pack that new 6.5 ounce tube of toothpaste in the carry-on bag, and ends when we remove our footwear so that we can stroll through the device that detects gadgets hidden in the nether regions of the body. It is unpleasant, but necessary, given the harsh and horrible reality that there are people out there bent on designing ways to blow up airplanes.
For years we have been walking through machines that detect only metal objects. But because they were ineffective against plastic, gels, ceramics and other solids, new technology arose in the form of whole-body scanners. Setting aside issues of privacy (and there are many), these machines pictorially undress you and scan and scope the body for everything. After the hue and cry that the government was deploying radiation in the name of security, and simultaneously increasing every traveler’s chance of cancer by so many leaps and bounds, we are now subjected to scans that operate on millimeter wave technology. According to the TSA and various other Web sites, millimeter wave technology is perfectly safe because it does not use ionizing radiation to zap you.
I did not know all this when I went to Puerto Rico in March 2013 with a friend for a 4-day trip, but I knew the basic ritual. I was directed towards the body scanner, or as I prefer to call it, the ‘Wave Machine. It looks like a silver cylinder pod, somewhat reminiscent of the transformer from Star Trek. At the time, I had heard vague buzz that these scanners were not so safe, but the TSA guard pooh-poohed me. She explained the machine operates on microwaves, not Xrays. No fear of being irradiated in the name of safety.
I waltzed into the pod, held my hands up, was microwaved, and cleared security. I met my girlfriend on the other side. She said she would never go through one of them, and had opted for the pat down.
I said, “Why? I was just assured how safe they were.”
She rolled her eyes and said, “Hah!”
Fast forward five months, and I am back in an airport having to go through security. I see the ‘Wave Machine, and I see the standard issue metal detector, and recalling my girlfriend’s, “Hah!” I proceed to walk through the metal detector. I am immediately halted by the TSA guard.
“You cannot use this machine. You need to use that machine.” He pointed to the ‘Wave.
“But I do not want to go through the ‘Wave Machine.”
“Well, then you have to get patted down.”
“You might have to wait.”
So as I am waiting, I see a woman sail through the metal detector. I figure the TSA guy must have made a mistake, so I try to walk through again. And again I am halted.
“How come she gets to go through?”
“She has a child.”
“Only adults with children, and employees, are allowed to use these machines.”
“Whoa, you have got to be kidding me!”
“No. Those are the rules.”
Hmmm. Is the TSA practicing a little unequal protection on the bodily harm spectrum? Even though the online literature repeatedly states that non-ionizing radiation is perfectly safe, does the TSA know something else? Has it perhaps determined that the organs and tissues of little lads and lasses, as well as employees of the TSA, are too delicate and vulnerable to be microwaved, but the rest of us wear invisible armor that protects against the assault of the people scanner?
I would love to see the risk assessment memos on this issue, penned by the lawyers and actuaries: Please analyze the monetary damages if a six year old successfully sues for wave damage vs. what would be incurred if a 60 year old sued.
The mere fact is that it would be so much more difficult to establish the link, so cause and effect on someone who has lived beyond 18 must have made it a no-brainer for the TSA to institute this policy. Or am I merely a right-side-of-50 cynic?
Fifteen minutes later the pat-down lady showed up. And on I went through security.