The good people at San Francisco airport have a millimeter wave scanner, which they use, as per normal procedures, to scan departing passengers.
So when I had the joy just recently to fly through America, I was presented with the usual choice.
- endure the millimeter wave scanner (about which more below), or
- subject myself to an “enhanced pat-down” (subject of the infamous “don’t touch my junk” video, from a traveller who took objection to it in November 2010).
In the event the choice was made harder for me by the airline schedule and by the enormously long immigration queue I had had to wait through, because if you ask to avoid the scanner, it takes time to make an officer available to do the pat-down. What this meant was that, on one side of the decision scales was a quick scan (there was no one in front of me in the queue) and catching my plane, and on the other side was the scan-free pat-down, missing my plane, staying overnight in San Francisco and doing it all again the next day.
In the end I resignedly surrendered my principles, skipped through the scanner, and rushed to get on my plane which, as if to reassure me, ended up leaving early.
It turns out that I need not have been so concerned. It doesn’t seem sensible to subject oneself to more x-rays than you need to, even if the machine they use at some airports gives a trivial dose by comparison with the rays one would absorb during the flight.
But in fact I was subjected to the millimeter wave scanner in San Francisco, which raises far fewer health concerns. The European Union issued a report saying that x-ray backscatter machines should not be used if millimeter wave devices are available, and banned the use of backscatter devices in their airports.
It remains a horrible thing to have to do. You stand in the machine alone, having been divested of your phone, your valuables, some clothes, and some of your dignity. You stand still, your feet on the little yellow feet marks that show you how to stand, isolated suddenly in the relative quiet of the transparent box. You hold your hands up in front of you, following the directions of the agent a few feet away, and aping the cheerless pictogram attached to the machine at eye level. A gesture of surrender to the might of technology and the bureaucracy that has determined that this is For Your Own Security.
The process is anonymised, clinical, optimised to process the greatest numbers of widgets with the least possible delay. Those doing the scanning been denuded of judgement, weary conveyor-belt workers following the rules, directing the endless stream of travellers through the bottleneck and onward into obscurity.
There is a whirr, the arms of the machine come to life and quickly spin around. Anti-climax. And you are done. You stroll out into the freedom and relative calm of the secure area, repatriated with your belongings, who have been through a similar process with more dangerous x-rays.
More amazing, the world accepts that this process is just how you get on a plane. As the TSA reportedly told this man, “By buying your ticket you gave up a lot of rights”. To me it seems more like the distopian vision of some early twentieth century serialist than the considered best efforts of a far-sighted twenty-first century government.
Of course, I am sceptical about the value of airport security in general. But still. Since they do not seem to find anything particularly helpful, and the terrorists are in retreat in most of the world, I do wonder how much longer this madness can continue. I see the process has been streamlined for frequent flyers. How long will it take for the rest of us?
PS One of my favourite things about airport security is the sign that says, in essence, “All airport security screening is by consent, but if you do not consent, you will not be allowed to fly.” So cynical.