Below the Beltway

Airport frisk assessment: Gene gets rubbed the wrong way

(Eric Shansby)
By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, December 5, 2010

Lately, total strangers have been groping my private parts. I know, yours, too. But it it's been happening to me more.

The infamous airport pat-down is the fault of the would-be "Underpants Bomber," whose capture last Christmas not only led to stricter TV news-anchor protocols for keeping a straight face, but also, as everyone now knows, to stricter security checkpoint procedures at airports. It's been particularly hard on me.

Now, if you beep when walking through the metal detector, you are no longer given a second chance -- you must submit to a full-body frisk, with special attention paid to your naughty sector. Wishing to avoid this, experienced fliers have begun taking extra care to eliminate even the faintest threat of beeping.

Before a recent Washington to New York flight, I watched a woman approach the checkpoint, stop, look around in vain for some private place, shrug, and then perform that frantic, fumbly, semi-mystical procedure that all women can do under their shirts, in which they emulate Durga, the eight-limbed Hindu goddess, until a sturdy underwire bra somehow snakes its way out an armhole. In this manner, the lady foiled the feel.

I cannot foil the feel. My recently restructured knees are made of titanium. To avoid the beep at the metal detector, I'd have to pull out a butcher knife and gouge out my new knees, which I think we can all agree would be really, really stupid because they'd still pop me for the knife.

And so I get frisked, every single time. The TSA people are nice about it. They tell you in advance exactly what they are going to do, emphasizing that they'll be using only the backs of their hands when probing sensitive areas -- like this makes everything appreciably less awkward. It is as though your Peeping Tom tells you not to be concerned, because he'll be closing one eye.

It's always a same-gender search, for which most women are presumably grateful. Most men, presumably, are not. (Note to airline regulators: Consider instituting all-female frisk teams. Everybody wins!)

I'm not among the masses who are whining about all this. It's all for the public good, and the security personnel are only doing their jobs. Sure it's awkward, but you can always gently return the favor: As I am being frisked, for example, I will sometimes quicken my breathing and moan a little. It does seem to hurry up the procedure.

For bionic people such as me, help is on the way. New technology -- already installed in some airports -- promises to make things easier for us. It's that scanner that peeks under your clothing, creating a ghostly but realistic image of your naked body, accurate down to every curve, knurl, protuberance, carbuncle, wen, bleb, wart and wattle and garfunkel. It's amazing technology, but, as far as I am concerned, it has arrived 50 years too late. Do you know how much money we 1960s adolescents threw away on those useless "X-Ray Specs"?

These airport X-Ray Specs have been years in development, engineered to be both precise and discreet. To minimize the inevitable violations of privacy, the technician who is peeking isn't physically present at the point of the scan. The inspection is done remotely, and anonymously, with the results radioed back to personnel at the checkpoint. It's magic. So now, to avoid the humiliation and indignity of a frisk, I can opt to have my privates inspected by someone far away, in a closed room, so she can't see who I am. And I can't hear her laughing.

E-mail Gene at

© 2010 The Washington Post Company