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

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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