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November 23, 2004

It's groping all around

Three weeks ago, I wrote about "lawyer-groping" after an article in the New York Times discussed the experience of a female lawyer with an intrusive pat-down search at airport security. I concluded my post with the following TSA motto: "Better that 100 innocent lawyers be groped than that one suspicious Arab be inconvenienced."

According to the front page of today's New York Times, in an article by Joe Sharkey (who seems to be making a career out of groping women -- not by him, of course, by the TSA), this policy of groping women at airport security is not limited to lawyers.

In dozens of interviews, women across the country say they were humiliated by the searches, often done in view of other passengers, and many said they had sharply reduced their air travel as a result.

The new security policies on body searches were put into practice in mid-September, after a terrorist attack in Russia a few weeks before that destroyed two planes, killing 90 people. Two Chechen women were thought to have carried nonmetallic explosives onto the planes, officials said. It is not known whether the explosives were hidden in the women's clothing, or whether the women merely boarded unimpeded, carrying the explosives.

But the Transportation Security Administration in the United States, already worried that metal detectors could not pick up nonmetallic explosives, issued new regulations requiring airport screeners to conduct more frequent and more intense secondary searches and pat-downs.

Apparently, this groping is pretty widespread.

Jen McSkimming, a manager with a domestic airline, said the numbers were "severely underreporting" the extent of the problem. She said she was recently at an industry meeting attended by a senior representative of the security agency who said, when the issue of pat-downs was raised, "Well, I only get about 15 complaints a week on this."

Ms. McSkimming said about half of the 30 people at the meeting were women and she asked the group how many women had had a bad experience with the new procedures. "Every single woman raised their hand,'' she said. "So I told him, 'Well, you'd better add 15 to this week's total.' "

Most of the women interviewed said they did not make formal complaints, most saying that they assumed it would be futile to do so. Ms. Maurer said she and some other women she had spoken to are wary of complaining in writing, both because of the presumed futility and from fear of being singled out when they travel in the future.

What's even more alarming about this is the reason many women believe the policy singles out women: "a belief that bras are good places to conceal nonmetallic explosives."

The fact that pursuing this concern would require intrusive searches of close to half of all adult air travelers is a great reason that ethnic profiling absolutely must come back. Isn't it about time for Norman Mineta to resign?

UPDATE (11/23/04): After shooting my mouth off, I decided to fact-check myself. TSA is actually a part of the Department of Homeland Security, not the Department of Transportation, of which Mineta is the Secretary. However, I adhere to my view that Mineta should resign for opposing profiling of air travelers. Here's what he said on the subject about 3 years ago:

Mineta's Japanese-American family was interned during World War II. He implies at every opportunity that by standing in the way of ethnic profiling, he is preventing a similar enormity today. "A very basic foundation to all of our work," he says, "is to make sure that racial profiling is not part of it."

Asked on 60 Minutes if a 70-year-old white woman from Vero Beach should receive the same level of scrutiny as a Muslim from Jersey City, Mineta said, "Basically, I would hope so." Asked if he could imagine any set of circumstances that would justify ethnic and racial profiling, Mineta said "absolutely not."

UPDATE (11/30/04): Another post on Rhonda Gaynier.