I have never walked through an airport body scanner — or, as I think of it, “the cancer machine.” In the years since these radiation chambers began appearing in airports across the United States, I have developed a variety of tricks to avoid submitting myself to them.
At checkpoints that use a combination of cancer machines and traditional metal detectors, it is just a matter of choosing the right queue. Often, however, a single line feeds into both machines, making the Transportation Security Administration officer responsible for directing passengers to one or the other. Since the officer gives priority to the cancer machine, relatively few passengers end up walking through the metal detector.
Confronted with this situation, I create delays, futzing with my shoes or laptop, until the line has bottlenecked at the cancer machine. At that point I walk confidently — or as confidently as one can possibly walk without wearing shoes — to the metal detector, at which point the officer usually waves me through.
Sometimes, however, there is no escape. In these cases I look directly into the eyes of the officer and explain that I refuse to go through “that machine,” or “that radiation machine,” or “that hateful cancer machine.” The official term for this is “opting out,” a phrase that suggests a reluctance to honor a simple, reasonable request. The suggestion is that the unwilling passenger is the unreasonable one. But I don’t think the United States government’s insistence on using these machines is reasonable. And if you think I’m crazy, then I have one thing to say to you: You’re crazy.
There have been various civilian protests against the X-ray machines, but most of them were inspired by concerns over privacy; the scanners, after all, showed agents what we look like naked.
In response, the Department of Homeland Security announced several months ago that it had terminated its contract with the X-ray scanners’ manufacturer — a company that actually calls itself Rapiscan (pronounced, I originally assumed, with a long “a”) — because it did not meet a deadline to deliver a less revealing technology. The Rapiscan machines have recently been replaced with scanners made by another company, which produce less graphic images. They also employ millimeter waves, which produce a significantly lower amount of radiation than X-rays. But those lower doses may be temporary. In October the T.S.A. signed a contract, potentially worth $245 million, with a third company that supplies a variety of “X-ray detection solutions.” It shouldn’t be too long before their machines begin appearing in airports.
The T.S.A. assures us that neither the X-ray scanners nor the millimeter wave machines pose a health risk. But frankly I’d prefer to avoid being irradiated, even a little bit.
T.S.A. officers seem to take it personally when I opt out. They sigh, they roll their eyes, they snort derisively. I always have the impression that, at some point in their training, they have been told that passengers who opt out are foolish and selfish, because that is how I tend to be treated — with disgust.
After my refusal, the officer yells, “Male assist!” But nobody ever seems to hear him. I am ordered to stand to one side and wait, sometimes for as long as 10 minutes, for a second officer to appear. This person usually has been standing within five feet of me the entire time, eyeing me with irritation.
Once, running late, I expressed concern to an officer that I might miss my flight. It was my own fault, he replied, adding that, in the future, if I plan on opting out, I should arrive at the airport three hours early.
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The author gives the name of “the cancer machine” to the
- metal detectors
- an airport body the X-ray scanners’ manufacturer scanner
- an altitude chamber.
- a medical office.
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