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Airport security faces scrutiny

by Michael Tarm
| November 17, 2010 8:00 PM

CHICAGO - An airport traveler who famously resisted a full-body scan and groin check with the words "If you touch my junk, I'll have you arrested" has become an Internet sensation, tapping into rising frustration over increasingly invasive searches.

John Tyner's online account - complete with cell-phone video of the encounter - has helped fuel a campaign urging travelers to decline the body scans next week during the busiest travel day of the year.

It also raised questions about the complaints: Are Americans standing up to government overreach or simply whining about the inconvenience of air travel while insisting on full protection from terrorists?

"I think Americans, in their hearts, still feel airport security is just a big show - form over substance," said Joseph Schwieterman, a Chicago-based transportation expert. "So they're impatient with strategies they feel are just there to placate political demands rather the genuine security threats."

Many of the people who have little tolerance for airport security are the same ones who want the government to work aggressively to prevent terrorist attacks, Schwieterman said.

Long-simmering annoyance among passengers and even plane crews has recently risen to new heights with wider use of full-body scanners, which show a traveler's physical contours on a computer in a private room removed from security checkpoints. Faces are never shown, and the person's identity is supposedly not known to the screener reviewing the images.

About 300 of the scanners are in use at 60 U.S. airports. The Transportation Security Administration hopes to deploy approximately 500 units by the end of the year.

Not all travelers are selected to go through the scanners, but the TSA requires people who decline to submit to pat-downs that include checks of the inside of their thighs and buttocks. Top federal officials insist the procedures are safe and necessary to ward off terror attacks.

"It's all about security," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said. "It's all about everybody recognizing their role."

Tyner, a 31-year-old software engineer from Oceanside, Calif., insisted he was not looking for notoriety when he confronted TSA agents last weekend at the San Diego airport.

"I don't think I did anything heroic," he said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "I stood up for what I thought was right."

After Tyner declined to go through the full-body scanner, he refused to submit to a groin check as part of a pat-down. He was thrown out of the airport Saturday after being threatened with a fine and lawsuit.

His confrontation spawned online sales of T-shirts, bumper stickers, hats and even underwear emblazoned with the words, "Don't Touch My Junk!"

But he does not advocate travelers following his lead, saying he appreciates that most people cannot afford to put expensive trips at risk.

"But people ought to do what their consciences say they should do," he said. "If civil disobedience is a way they think would work, I think they should do it."

Tyner's one-man protest has inspired other efforts, including an online campaign urging air travelers to refuse body scans in a "National Opt-Out Day" the day before Thanksgiving, one of the year's busiest travel days.

Brian Sodergren, 33, of Ashburn, Va., said he put up the site a week ago. Interest spiked after Tyner's video went viral.

"This issue has picked up steam more than I ever would have imagined," said Sodergren, who works in the health care industry. "The outpouring has been huge."

Sodergren stops short of urging people to refuse both the scanner and pat-down.

"The proper reaction isn't walking away and subjecting yourself to penalties," he said Tuesday. "The proper response is to write to your lawmakers and get the law changed."

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