What happens when you opt out of the scanner

You can resist being x-rayed at airports, but be warned: you will be subjected to ‘the Diana Ross’ for doing so.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics

Normally I don’t opt out of things. I’m not one of those people who thinks an individual can change the world by opting out of having a Tesco loyalty card or refusing to pay the portion of his tax that might go towards the war in Iraq or never buying oranges from shops owned by Jews. In contrast to mass boycotts of the past – such as the post-Rosa Parks bus boycott in Alabama in the 1950s – today’s individuated politics of opting out is more about wallowing in political seclusion and self-satisfaction rather than really engaging with the world. It’s about keeping your own hands clean by evacuating yourself from the dirty world of political debate.

But at Newark Airport earlier this month, waiting for a flight back to London, something flipped. I was so irritated by the simultaneous slothfulness and suspicion of the airport security checks – at six o’fucking clock in the morning, as I believe they call it in New Jersey – that I decided to annoy the security staff by opting out of the x-ray body-scanner. I just wanted to assert my basic human right to be a pain in the ass to the authorities, who in my view were not only subjecting me, and everyone else, to unnecessary and invasive security checks, but were also keeping me from that bucket of strong, black coffee on the other side of security that had my name written all over it.

I ended up regretting my decision.

‘Please step through the body-scanner, sir’, said the uniformed lady, having already made me take off my cap (Jesus, my hair at six in the morning), my belt and my boots and dig out my laptop from my carry-on bag and open it up, because, as we all know, laptops are one of the greatest threats to Western civilisation. ‘I don’t want to go through the body-scanner’, I said, in my best posh English accent, hoping that sounding a bit like Brian Sewell would heap further irritation on to the security staff. ‘Excuse me?’, said the lady. ‘I said I don’t want to go through the body-scanner’, I repeated, firmer, louder, posher. ‘You’re opting out of the body-scanner?’ ‘Correct.’ ‘You don’t want to go through the body-scanner?’ ‘No, I don’t.’ ‘You are definitely opting out of the machine?’ ‘Yes.’

‘WE HAVE AN OPT-OUT!’, she yelled, as loudly and New Jersily as possible, leaving my put-on posh voice for dust. Immediately everyone in the queue stared at me, probably trying to work out if a) I was a terrorist or b) I am for some reason so embarrassed by my body that I don’t want a stranger to look at it through an x-ray machine for 10 seconds. For the record, I am neither. But it is testament to the power of airport security checks to induce shame in all who must endure them that at that moment I couldn’t decide which was worse: whether the people behind me were thinking ‘he must have a bomb’ or thinking ‘he must have a tiny dick’.

Another uniformed individual – bigger and male – approached me. ‘You are opting out of the scanner?’ he said. For the fourth time I asserted that I was. Raising his eyes to the heavens – so expertly and extravagantly that I am convinced this is a new skill airport security staff are taught in the event of someone opting out of being x-rayed – he said: ‘Come with me.’ He took me off to a table in the corner of the security-check room. ‘You do realise, sir, that because you opted out of the scanner I will now have to give you a full-body pat-down?’, he said. ‘Oh, I didn’t realise that, no.’ ‘Well, I will, so raise your arms.’

What followed was what we might call ‘the Diana Ross’. Everything was patted in search of possible explosives. ‘I am now going to pat your bottom… I am now going to pat your crotch area… I am now going to feel inside your socks.’ Great. I wouldn’t go so far as to describe this as sexual assault, like some of those crazy people who have tried to sue airports after their staff allegedly violated their personal, sexual, feminine and/or masculine space, but it was definitely not what I needed at six in the morning, pre-coffee and sans cap, and I can think of far better ways to get felt up in New Jersey. ‘So, if you opt out of the body-scanner, you get publicly humiliated and patted down?’, I asked. ‘You really shouldn’t be speaking to me right now, sir’, he replied, one hand on my arse and the other running down my leg.

So it seems that, yes, we’re permitted to opt out of the body-scanners, but we will be provocatively patted for doing so. All I could think was: ‘Thanks a lot bin Laden.’ Thanks a lot caveman with kidney problems for making me have my balls touched in front of a hundred groggy-eyed air passengers at some ungodly hour on a Sunday morning. But of course it is not, strictly speaking, bin Laden’s fault. Rather, what the rise and rise of airport security checks reveals is Western society’s own frail state of mind and dysfunctional relationship with liberty.

That we air passengers now have to remove our shoes (courtesy of Richard Reid), bin every liquid from orange juice to contact-lenses solution (courtesy of those British wannabe plane-bombers), and stand virtually naked, cranky and exposed, before some possibly salivating security man really shows up the jitteriness of our own societies. The daft shoe-bomber and the socially inadequate liquid-bombers – failures all – can hold Western society to ransom only because Western society itself feels deeply vulnerable and insecure and is willing to change its outlook, its liberties and its international transport networks in response to a handful of fancy-dress martyrs. The impact of terrorism on society is determined not by the terrorist himself, but by the way we choose to react to the threat that he poses. And we have responded to the threat of contemporary Islamic radicalism by sending normalcy on a long-term, indefinite holiday.

I’m not surprised that more and more people are opting out of the body-scanners and that there’s now even a campaign and international opt-out day organised around the slogan ‘Don’t touch my junk’. It’s because this is the one part of the new crazy airport security framework that people are allowed to reject, which they are told they can opt out of, and they are seizing it with relish. It’s not because they are bombers or have tiny dicks that they don’t want to be x-rayed – it’s because they finally have a chance to kick back against the utterly irrational reorganisation of international travel in response to a few knuckleheads and losers.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Read his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics

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