Rage against the x-ray machine

The criticism of tomorrow’s mass protest against airport scanners highlights how much liberals have become detached from liberty.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

The casual reader could be forgiven for thinking that this Wednesday, the day before Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, is going to be a day to remember.

According to Opt Out Day, ‘it’s the day ordinary [American] citizens stand up for their rights, stand up for liberty and…’ And what? Rights, liberty – that’s grand-sounding stuff. So what else are Americans being urged to stand up for? What else are Americans being called upon to protest? Something equally impressive, right? Yes, that’s right, 24 November is the day ordinary citizens rise up and protest against ‘the federal government’s desire to virtually strip us naked or submit to an “enhanced pat down” that touches people’s breasts and genitals in an aggressive manner’.

In short, it’s the day Americans stick it to the airport security man.

Despite the po-faced, snigger-worthy phrasing, this isn’t such a ridiculous cause. As anyone who has travelled by aeroplane in the past 10 years can attest, the level of airport security is absurd. No liquids. Take off your shoes. Show us your laptop. The level of uniform scrutiny – where even OAPs have to pad, barefooted, through the x-ray arches – is a genuine triumph of rules over reason.

But what’s really got certain people riled in the US are the new x-ray machines. Clearly designed by a teenage boy, these contraptions produce three-dimensional images of passengers in such detail that genitalia are outlined and breasts highlighted. For those passengers unwilling to submit to such imaging – on the grounds that it’s a bit intrusive – they get the ‘pat down’ treatment, a thorough, uninhibited frisking which touches what the x-ray can only outline. It was clearly the prospect of having his penis caressed by airport security that made an ‘opt out day’ martyr of software engineer John Tyner a couple of weeks ago. ‘If you touch my junk’, he shouts on the obligatory YouTube video, ‘I’ll have you arrested’. He is a supporter of the new campaign group, at

The increasingly vocal objections to the invasive rigmarole of airport security have not met with universal support, however. The UK Guardian’s Richard Adams, for instance, responded with disdain. For Adams, not wanting to be viewed as a potential terrorist, not wanting to be treated as 3D object of suspicion, is not a sign of self-respect – it’s a sign of self-regard. ‘This is the revenge of the How-Dare-You generation’, he rails. ‘How dare you tell me what to do! How dare you look at me! How dare you touch my junk! Sexual assault! I hate you mommy!’ The fact that resisting authority, standing up to the arbitrary exercise of power, necessarily involves a bit of don’t-tell-me-what-to-do spunk seems to have escaped Adams.

It’s not hard to fathom why this has slipped Adams’ attention. He doesn’t see the content of the protest. He doesn’t see its rationale. He sees only a caricature of its protagonists. They’re mad. They’re right wing. They’re Tea Partiers. Heck, they’re probably racist, too. After all why would anyone object to excessive airport security? It keeps us safe, for chrissakes. Adams’ outlook is at one with the state. ‘Personally, I’d like to take a flight knowing that the plane is less likely to be blown up or hijacked and rammed into a building full of people’, he says. ‘Alternatively, I’d like to be able to work in a tall building in New York City, Washington DC or even London without having a 747 flown into it.’

I’m with Adams on this. I, too, would like to take a flight confident that it won’t be blown up or hijacked or rammed into a building. The same goes for working in a tall building without worrying about jumbo jets being flown into the cafeteria. Call me human or something, but that sense of self-preservation, of not wanting to die, is something I definitely share with Adams. And I would bet that those whom Adams lampoons as right-wing loons – like the Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, who supports Opt Out Day – feel the same.

It’s just that the constantly expanding set of airport security measures does not actually make us safer. In fact, it doesn’t do much at all, except demean and annoy passengers. Little wonder that British Airways chairman Martin Broughton recently felt moved to suggest that laptop checks and shoe removal are completely pointless exercises. ‘We all know there’s quite a number of elements in the security programme which are completely redundant and they should be sorted out’, he said. Besides which, terrorist plots do not tend to be foiled by the vigilant x-ray machine operators or frisking officials with super-sensitive cuticles. They tend to be foiled before the would-be terrorists even get to the airport, through targeted intelligence operations.

To be fair, the ever-expanding number of security measures at airports is not entirely without effect. It does reassure us that there is something to be frightened of. Because if you weren’t worried about international terrorism before you entered an airport, there’s enough fear-stoking procedures within to ensure that you’re fully signed up to the ‘war on terror’ upon departing.

But for those who are less keen to live their lives according to the mindset of terrorists, there is something to be said in support of the Opt Out Day protests. While it may not be the most expansive of political protests, it does suggest that quite a few people are fed up with being treated as if they were about to kill a lot of people. In that respect at least, the cry of ‘don’t touch my junk’ isn’t quite as silly as it sounds.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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