If you’re one of the millions of Americans who resolved to get in shape this year but lack motivation, booking a flight at an airport near you might be just the ticket to push you to feel the burn.
Whenever you fly, you’re used to tossing your bags on a conveyor belt and then removing shoes and enough clothing to leave you just this side of bare-naked. Soon you’ll get to stand with your arms out and legs spread so that a stranger huddled over a computer can peer at an image of virtually nude, lumpy you.
The stranger doesn’t see your face, and you never see the stranger’s face. But both of you will know that lurking under what’s left of your clothing are more bumps and bulges than the Appalachian foothills have.
If you think I’m making light of the full-body scanners on order for airports across the country, you’re right. For one thing, I saw these computer-generated images up close and personal last summer, after two of the machines were installed at Cleveland’s airport. These images are not pornographic unless your sexual fantasies steer toward cartoon characters and robots, in which case “ew” doesn’t begin to diagnose your issues.
More importantly, on Christmas Day we allegedly came this close to a would-be terrorist named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab using plastic explosives sewn in his underwear to blow up a commercial flight headed for America. As I wrote just last summer, anyone wearing this travel accessory probably would not make it through a full-body scanner. But Abdulmutallab — a 23-year-old Nigerian with no coat, no luggage and cash for his ticket — ambled right through the metal detector in Amsterdam and onto Northwest Airlines Flight 253.
Not exactly Secret Agent Man.
Abdulmutallab’s father had tried to warn American officials about his son. Reportedly, an initial search misspelled his name, so no one discovered he had a multiple entry visa. This error is confounding to some of us. Enter a misspelled name in a Google search and you immediately are greeted with “Did you mean” in bright red letters, followed by the correct spelling.
It’s a little unsettling to think that security systems haven’t figured that one out.
The Transportation Security Administration has ordered 130 full-body scanners, which emit low-level X-rays and produce computer images that look like chalk drawings. An additional 300 scanners are on order for next year.
There are numerous precautions to protect your privacy. The TSA screener who waves you through is not the one who sees your computer image, which is deleted as soon as you’re cleared. The images can’t be stored, printed or transmitted, and the person scanning the pictures is not allowed to bring a cell phone or camera into the room.
Nevertheless, some insist that these full-body scanners are a violation of privacy. It doesn’t help when TV news anchors keep warning viewers about “graphic images” and praising grim-faced male volunteers as “brave” and “courageous” before walking in front of the scanners that pick up every piece of fake contraband they’re wearing.
Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union championed the privacy of celebrities who live and work in Los Angeles and fear their computer images could be posted on the Internet. People who regularly expose themselves for money and attention probably don’t make the best victims, and so lately we aren’t hearing that argument much. Now we’re talking about how Grandma should be able to keep her waist-highs to herself.
There are also protests from the usual cast of angry Americans who insist you can’t trust the government to make travel any safer. A curious argument coming from an entire population of people who turn the key in the ignition and pull out onto roads paved, painted and policed by — how’s this for coincidence? — the government.
Think about it. We carry licenses issued by the government, strap on seat belts required by the government and then follow any number of traffic laws passed by the government. We also assume that all the strangers sharing the road with us passed the same driver’s test given by the government.
So, c’mon, you’re going to stand there and tell me you don’t trust the government?
Now, that’s a funny image.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer
Prize-winning columnist for The
Plain Dealer in Cleveland and the
author of two books from Random
House, “Life Happens” and “… and
His Lovely Wife.”