How to kill the TSA’s full body scanners — once and for all

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By Christopher Elliott

It started like it always does, just a few moments before I checked in for my flight. The sweating. The heart thumping uncontrollably inside my chest. The weak knees.

But one look at the blue paramilitary TSA uniforms in the airport terminal, and I thought this would be worse.

Much worse.

It wasn’t only because I had to see my entire family — which includes a five-year-old girl and two boys, ages seven and ten — through a TSA screening area. It was also because for the first time, I found our path to the terminal obstructed by one of the poorly-tested scanners.

The TSA has forced air travelers to make a preposterous choice between a full-body scan, which potentially exposes you to harmful radiation, and an “enhanced” pat-down, for the last two years. For me, it was always an easy call to make: pat me down if you have to, but don’t microwave me.

But now I was making a decision for my kids, and I didn’t know if it was the right one.

I approached a TSA agent.

“I need a male and female assist, please,” I said. “We’re opting out.”

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A Morton’s Fork

Every day across the country, other air travelers make the same difficult choice. They either walk through the scanners, hoping for the best, or they take their chances with a pat-down that may or may not violate their dignity.

For those of us who believe we shouldn’t have to make that kind of decision — indeed, that in the Land of the Free, we shouldn’t be treated like potential terrorists whenever we travel — we received some good news last week when it appeared the TSA was backing down from using what are believed to be the most dangerous of the full-body scanners.

As it turns out, the story was not quite all that the agency’s critics had hoped for. The TSA was just reshuffling some of its scanners, an event that had already been reported this summer.

Will we ever get rid of the Morton’s Fork presented by the TSA?

Yes, we will. And the time may be now.

Let’s opt out

It all came into focus just a day before I asked a TSA agent to pat down my entire family. It came by way of reader Jack Bowman, a technology consultant from Dallas who told me he objected to the TSA’s ineffective screening practices, but that at the end of the day, he chooses to opt out of the scanner for what he calls “contentious reasons.”

He’s trying to slow down the line.

“The TSA is a waste of my money and unconstitutional,” he says. “Personally, I think we would all be a lot safer if the TSA went away.”

With just one or two dissidents like him out there, the TSA can have its way with us. But what if everyone decided to opt out?

That was the idea behind National Opt-Out Day in 2010, the product of a loose coalition of activists that was called a “bust” by mainstream media. (Indeed, the movement seems to be history. An online search for its website takes you to a company selling discount prescription drugs.)

But now, the momentum is building for a second, more sustained opt-out protest which would take place during an entire week, from Nov. 19 to 26. The idea, first suggested by the activist site InfoWars, is now being seriously discussed among activists, and is gaining traction among passengers.

The reasoning behind a National Opt-Out Week is this: If the TSA decides to shut down its scanners in response to the protest, as it allegedly did in 2010, activists would have ample opportunity to document the action over a period of a week. TSA critics would then have more than enough evidence to prove that these scans and pat-downs are a false choice and do practically nothing to improve our safety. (Here’s how to handle the TSA when you travel.)

Balancing security and dignity

No one wants to fly with the fear of a terrorist blowing up a plane. But do we have to trade that fear for the anxiety that comes every time we fly? Do we have to be treated like a suspect by the TSA? Do we need to be forced through a metal detector, scanned, and maybe frisked like dangerous prisoners?

I think you have the right to travel without experiencing that kind of fear.

I consider myself lucky. When I asked the TSA agent to frisk my family, he laughed and waved us through the magnetometer.

“You don’t have to go through the scanner,” he said.

As we made our way through the screening area, I felt myself relaxing.

Then I turned to take one last look at the dreaded scanner. I saw a young woman standing inside, her legs slightly spread, her hands high in the air as if she were being held at gunpoint.

She looked about six months pregnant.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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