Pat-down becomes put-down as abusive attitude of TSA agents spreads humiliation

    Transportation Security Administration employees are shown at work before Memorial Day weekend. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

    Transportation Security Administration employees are shown at work before Memorial Day weekend. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

    It’s almost time to pack for vacation. These days, I worry less about choosing bathing suits and earmuffs than about going through the security gate at the airport. The Transportation Security Administration has too few screeners, and hired subs are filling in, though not with much training.

    I been ‘buked and I been scorned. I been patted down. I been mammogrammed. But I despise the fumbling of female TSA employees who touch me all over while I stand with my arms above my head.

    Granted, screening all airline passengers can prevent danger. If we need to repackage hand cream into three-ounce containers — because one man once planned to hide explosives in plastic bottles — we understand and comply. If we need to remove our shoes before boarding — because one man once carried a bomb in his shoe — we understand and comply, if grudgingly.

    A patting-down feels as appealing as cockroaches look, but we understand and comply. We balk at the indignity of undergoing this abuse at the hands of Neanderthals, and we wonder why it must be so.

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    A few years ago, a surgeon implanted a fragment of titanium into my worn-out knee. When my knee and I go to the airport, we need a manual scan.

    I cannot easily move crabwise, least of all while removing shoes, jacket, and scarf; freeing phone, laptop, and Kindle; sliding three gray plastic bins along the rolling metal dowels. Nonetheless I understand and obey.

    Don’t I have a card telling the screeners I have a new leg, a passport to the departure gates? Sure. It’s worth as much as the adoption certificate for the Chia pet you buy online. Since that fateful September day in 2001, a get-out-of-screening-with-a-new-knee card is worthless.

    The surgeon dispenses cards as readily as a pediatrician doles lollipops: Preprinted business cards, on the back of which a clerk hand-writes: KNEE. LEFT. AUGUST 24, 2010.

    A potential hijacker or exploding-vest-wearer could print hundreds.

    So the guard shunts me aside to wait while the female patter manhandles a woman in a wheelchair. Minutes later, the patter wordlessly waves me into the patting cubicle. She points to the outline of feet on the scuzzy carpet: two size-12 male footprints, too far apart for me to reach.

    “Put your feet on those feet,” she says, the first indication that she can speak.

    I comply, placing my shoeless feet between them. “It hurts my knees to spread my legs so wide,” I say.

    “Put your feet on those feet.”

    “It hurts. If I do that, can you please scan my legs first?”

    “Raise your arms.”

    That’s when the pat-down becomes the put-down. That’s what reminds you of the insensitive creeps who squeeze your breasts during mammography and say it doesn’t hurt. That’s what evokes childhood spankings, flavored with the world’s least believable sentence: “This hurts me more than it hurts you.”

    We understand and comply with the need for safety and security in air travel. The TSA is doing its job. But we could do with less rebuke and scorn.

    There is, happily, an end in sight. The TSA no longer screens people age 75 or older. I only have to pass a few more birthdays to reach that lofty age.

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