A year-and-a-half after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, my daughter Holly, then just 2 years old, was asked to take off her Winnie the Pooh sneakers and stand, spread-eagle, for a female Transportation Security Administration screener at Bangor International Airport in Maine. She was scanned with a wand and quickly patted down.
The uproar about a video recently posted on YouTube, which depicts a TSA agent at a New Orleans airport giving a similar pat-down to a 6-year-old girl, inspired me to recall this experience, but don’t expect me to get all fired up about it.
Sure, we were surprised that our daughter was selected for extra screening – after all, most toddlers aren’t terrorists (Yeah, right. I’m guessing some of you would beg to differ) – but we were grateful security was tight and happy to do our part.
The fuss generated by this YouTube video makes me wonder, though, if we’re alone with this attitude. In it, the TSA agent calmly explains the procedure to the child and her mother and then asks the child to spread her arms and legs for the pat-down. The child apparently complains and her mother asks if she can just be re-scanned instead. The agent says no, but does try to reassure the child. It’s evident to me that she conducted the pat-down in a gentle and professional manner, using the back of her hand to pat the child’s backside and skimming her hand inside the top of her neckline and waistband.
I can’t deny that it’s weird to have to submit to this procedure. Nobody relishes the idea, but as long as people exist who would do us harm – like the would-be “Christmas bomber” of 2009, the young man suspected of terrorist ties who managed to board a plane bound for Detroit who then tried to blow it up on Christmas Day by detonating explosives sewn into his underwear – then it seems to me that we must do whatever it takes to foil their plans.
To me, this means not advertising that whole categories of travelers – young children, for example – are exempt from random selection for extra security screening. I remember realizing, at the time of my daughter’s screening in Bangor, that terrorists look for lapses in security and would see exempting a whole group as an opportunity. But Marjorie Esman, the executive director of the ACLU Louisiana, apparently isn’t concerned about this possibility.
“A 6-year-old child shouldn’t be subjected to this kind of treatment in the first place if there’s no reason to suspect her or her parents of being criminals,” she told CBS affiliate WWL in New Orleans.
CBS News national security correspondent Bob Orr disagrees. He was quoted as saying “You can’t take kids out of the mix. The exemption would point terrorists to a gaping hole in our security … The bottom line is al-Qaeda is savvy, study our security system and practices and it’s not beyond al-Qaeda to use kids.”
This may be hard for most parents to accept, but I’ll pick my poison and put up with a pat-down of my kid if it means one less opportunity for terrorists to think they can take away our freedom – for real.
In an interview with “Good Morning America,” the father of the child depicted in the YouTube video said that his daughter started to cry after the pat-down. I’m sorry for her distress, but there is a solution to this conundrum: don’t fly.
If the prospect of having your child randomly selected for extra screening makes you so uncomfortable that you cannot contain your angst – for your child’s sake – then I think you need to find another way to get where you’re going. If you interpret a security pat-down to mean that the screener has decided that you are a criminal, andmight even derive some perverse pleasure from the process, then it makes sense to me that you would have a hard time with the whole thing.
But, on the other hand, if you approach the experience with a spirit of adventure and tell your kids that the security agents’ job is to make sure that we have nothing in our clothing that could interfere with a safe flight, they’ll probably be OK with it. Our children tend to take their cues from us about how to react to things, after all.
Imagine how reassuring it would be for our kids if we not only cooperated with the agents who do the screenings but actually thanked them for working to protect us?
Staying one step ahead of forces who mean us harm isn’t easy. But do we really need to edit our “good-touch/bad-touch” lectures and tell our children that no one’s allowed to touch you “there” but Mommy, Daddy, the doctor and the TSA agents at the airport?