Family Matters

Do TSA Pat-Downs Work? Even Kids Know How to Blow Up a Plane

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“Mama,” my young son informed me yesterday, “I know how you can sneak an explosive onto an airplane.”

It was the kind of overconfident declarative that makes a parent sit up and take notice. I did both.

“You put it in the front of your underwear,” continued Aviv, who turns 8 this week, “because they don’t touch you there.”

“They” are the Transportation Security Administration officers who felt up my three kids and me yesterday in the San Diego airport, studiously averting our groins in the process. We’d opted out of the full-body scanners because my father, a physician who pooh-poohs organic food and thinks global warming is a bunch of malarkey, said it’s a good idea to avoid extra radiation if you can help it. I needed no further convincing, despite the widely publicized stat that a passenger gets more radiation in the air than from the scanner. Like David Ropeik, a Harvard instructor and author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Match the Facts, pointed out last month on Healthland, “that radiation exposure is voluntary. The exposure in the scanner is required, involuntary — as is the pat down. Imposed risk always feels greater.” (More on See the top 10 travel moments of 2010)

The kids and I were ushered to an area adjacent to the scanners, where two blue-gloved female officers awaited. One suggested I go first to show the kids that being groped was no big deal. That’s the best way to handle it, advises Craig S. Fabrikant, the former chief of psychology at the Institute for Child Development at Hackensack University Medical Center. “How do you get a kid to eat something?” he told Healthland recently. “You take a taste first so they know it’s safe.”

So I became chief taste-tester, spreading my arms and legs wide as my kids — who have been taught that no one, other than their parents or their doctor, should ever touch their bodies in the way I was being touched — watched curiously.

The officer made a big deal of announcing that she would use the backs of her hands when gliding over my breasts and derriere. Is that a new part of the regimen? It’s all the same to me, but perhaps TSA has ordered up that protocol to try to desexualize the process for the officers. When she was through, she swabbed her gloves with a solution then told me to wait until a machine gave me the all-clear. (More on How to get your kid through the TSA ‘pat-down’ with little trauma)

Next up was my daughter, Shira, who’ll turn 6 next month and loves to follow rules. She didn’t mind the pat-down a bit and loved being called “princess” by the agent, who cooed and smiled at her and her little sister. I guess patting down cute children is a lot less stressful for them than screening surly adult passengers.

My 3-year-old, Orli, followed. Fortunately, Orli loves going through security as much as adults detest it. It’s a game! She tugged off her Mary Janes and meticulously placed them in her very own plastic bin, along with her ever-present panda and silky blanket, then ushered her possessions along the conveyor belt. Getting patted-down was just another component of the process, and she cooperated fully as long as I held her hand. Aviv was last because they had to page a male security agent. (More on Airline fees and why they’re here to stay)

Things got a little sketchy at this point. The officer patted him down, then tested his gloves. Something wasn’t right because the officer announced he’d need to do a re-do. When I asked what he was testing for, he mumbled something about nitrates in the air or some such thing. He snapped on a new pair of gloves, repeated the pat-down, then let us go, but not before complimenting the kids on their great behavior. Mommy beamed. The kids cracked up: “They touched our booty!” (More on Physical Risk vs. Perceived Risk: Explaining the TSA Backlash)

All told, the pat-downs were hardly a big deal. The kids found them intriguing, an interesting travel episode in their journey from southern California to Seattle. I’d pick being body-scanned or patted down over being blown up any day.

Last month, a Washington Post–ABC poll found that just 30% of Americans are worried about airborne terrorism, the lowest percentage since 9/11. Hopefully, our level of worry accurately reflects the real risk. Because I’ve got news for the TSA: if a second-grader can figure out that you can bypass security by precisely positioning a bomb in your crotch, that doesn’t bode well for safety in the skies.

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