Watson: I’ll take the pat-down

Dec 19, 2016 by

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I am slow going through airport security. I tend to hold up the line. Confuse other passengers. Disrupt the TSA agents. That is because I always decline the full-body scanning machines in favor of a pat-down. It is part of my nonviolent witness to a militarized culture.

Hillary Watson


Body scan technology first appeared in airports in 2007, and usage jumped after a 2009 Christmas bombing attempt. Most of the criticism about body scanners focused on privacy and radiation, both legitimate concerns.

But what the public never discussed — and people of faith never mentioned — was the machines’ inherent violence. Body scanners are built to intimidate and enclose. They dehumanize and objectify the travelers, who are reduced to two-dimensional outlines, even as they dehumanize the anonymous, uniformed, mostly nonwhite employees examining those scans.

Even a few seconds in the closet-like canister reminds us why they exist: bad people are out to get us, and the only way to prevent violence is blind faith in technology. Body scanners stoke our fear while claiming to relieve it. They are walls, echoing the walls of armored Humvees, border fences and prisons. No security without walls, they say.

Scanners rest on the idea that money buys security. According to USA Today, from 2008 to 2017 the TSA has spent $2.1 billion on airport body scanners.

Meanwhile, the Tuesday after Thanksgiving at airports across the U.S., non-TSA airline employees went on a one-day strike to demand a $15 minimum wage (about $30,000 yearly). TSA security officers make about $30,000 to $44,000 yearly, about the median and mean incomes for all U.S. workers but hardly a lucrative salary. The TSA can justify spending $150,000 to $175,000 per body scan machine but cannot afford to pay its security officers — the humans charged with finding and safely removing weapons from public spaces — more than $16 an hour. That is another type of violence.

The TSA security system runs on the myth that violence prevents violence.

The Jesus I encounter in Scripture uses his body to disrupt violence over and over, from the woman threatened with violence in John 8 to physically intervening between Peter and a servant in Gethsemane.

The Christian response to militarized TSA space is vulnerability and, yes, an embrace of pat-downs. To transform state-authorized systems of violence. To collapse the space between traveler and officer. To respond to fearfulness with fearlessness. To say paradoxically that my body is not a tool for violence and you may touch these scars to see it for yourself.

I’ve had odd run-ins in the six years I’ve committed to only pat-downs. Once a TSA agent tapped my pockets where my hipbones jutted out and said, “What are these?”

“Those are my bones,” I told her, embarrassed and at the same time confident in my body’s idiosyncrasies.

The last time I flew, I accidentally wore a dress, with sheer pink stockings leaving the outline of my tattoo visible. I felt vulnerable, exposed. The woman giving my pat-down was in training, supervised by a male officer. “Do I have to pat down her stockings?” she asked.

As the officer shook his head, all three of us giggled. We laughed at the system’s absurdity, at the intimacy of this moment contrived by violence, at the idea that any one of us was a threat to any other one of us.

And I glimpsed, from the corner of my eye, Jesus laughing with us, as the system of violence became a meeting of three individuals.

Hillary Watson pastors at Lombard Mennonite Church in suburban Chicago. She blogs at gatheringthestones.com.

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  • Conrad Hertzler

    I am shaking my head with incredulity after reading this piece. The airport security system is flawed, to be sure. I, along with everyone who has flown, have experienced my frustrations with long lines, gruff TSA agents and the embarrassment of needing to stand “hands up” in the full body scanner. I always think about how the bad guys have lessened my freedom even though I have not personally known anyone who has been killed or injured in a terrorist attack.

    However, I would never go as far as calling airport security measures violence. It seems to me that this would be a terrible insult to people who have suffered true violence; people who actually lost loved ones on 9-11 and other horrific airport and airplane bombings or hijackings. There are people who know what violence really is. Call TSA’s security measures unjust and I can accept that. Call them annoying and I would heartily agree with you. But violent? I can’t see it.

    Average TSA employees are working in an unpleasant system that has been created by powers far above them. Does Ms. Watson think that they enjoy doing pat-downs? Sure, it creates a personal connection rather than an impersonal one, but I’m not so certain that it creates the kind of connection that she imagines. Putting myself in their shoes, I always cringe when I see them needing to pat someone down and I imagine that it must be embarrassing for them. Would it not be better to take the body scan and give the employees a kind smile and encouraging word? If everyone chose to take a pat-down, I fail to see how that would transform “state-authorized systems of violence”. In the money/time driven airline industry, it would create longer lines, more hassles, frustrations and yet more machine-efficient security measures.

    • Keith Wiebe

      Conrad, let them do a pat down of your privates real good and tell us it’s not violent. Put yourself in women’s shoes for once.

      • Conrad Hertzler

        Keith, I hesitate to respond because the tone of of your response makes me question your desire to have a civil discussion. In my experience, male officers usually pat down male passengers and female officers usually pat down female passengers and I don’t understand how being female makes the pat-down more invasive. My point was, that whatever you call it (I still don’t think of it as violence, even though I have been patted down in intimate spots), electing a pat down over the machine will not change the system. As I said, I believe that the average TSA employee is working in a system that he/she did not create and would rather that a person take the scanner because A. it takes less time and B. it avoids the embarrassment of the pat-down for both the officer and the passenger. Everyone electing a pat-down will create more delays and cause the powers that be, making decisions from the sterility of an office somewhere distant, to create yet more “efficient” ways of dealing with the security problem which would no doubt involve yet more machines. That’s just my opinion.

        • Keith Wiebe

          Conrad quote: “I am shaking my head with incredulity after reading this piece”
          I think you set the tone Conrad.

          • Conrad Hertzler

            OK, Keith. I’m not arguing with you.

          • Conrad Hertzler

            After I wrote that first line which you quoted, I kind of wished I hadn’t started out that way. I wasn’t trying to be demeaning or anything like that. I feel like I expressed fairly well what my objections were/are. But your suggestion to “put myself in women’s shoes for once” implied that I am insensitive to women, and you did not address anything else that I had written. I’m sorry if I set a bad “tone”. My intention was to present another view and not to argue.

        • Joshua Rodd

          Conrad, I elected pat downs when I needed to go through airport security 2-4 times a week for my job, and the safety of being exposed to the kind of radiation from body scanners had not been proven (and still isn’t proven). That’s a certain kind of violence, to be sure, particularly for people who fly regularly.

          Imaging people naked is also a form of violence, at least if we believe in biblical principles like modesty. And I don’t see how a pat-down is any better just because someone of the same sex is doing it.

          • Conrad Hertzler

            The scanners don’t actually image people naked so I don’t see it as being an invasion of privacy in that way. I can see the point that radiation might be harmful.

  • Joshua Rodd

    Despite conservative Mennonite women not having a history of violence nor smuggling weapons through airport security, they are required to unveil themselves and let their hair down at the airports where I live, a both time consuming practice and one that is unsettling in such a public place. Members of other religions who veil are not put to the same requirements. I have no idea why.

    Since we try to be the “quiet in the land”, we don’t go to our public officials and complain about this, but I appreciate Watson being willing to speak out about how unnecessary and invasive it is to have state employees ordered to do such “pat-downs”.

    Over in Australia, things are a bit different. Screenings are thorough, but women aren’t singled out to make sure they aren’t hiding who-knows-what in their hairbun. (I’m not even sure what kind of weapon could go through disguised as a hairpin!) There are no body scanners, nor a mandatory pat-downs because one declines to be scanned and imaged by a machine.

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