Hundreds — or maybe even thousands — of people have felt just as violated as Evelyn Harris when they were subjected to invasive airport pat-downs.
Harris, a 65-year-old retiree from Maryland, was subjected to a search just one step removed from a Pap smear after her panty liner triggered an alarm at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport earlier this year. Yet she initially hesitated to report it — as have many of the people who reached out to me after my column about Harris.
The lack of resistance to being manhandled in the name of security is a slippery slope, folks. And we’re sliding down it fast.
Whether it’s a Transportation Security Administration officer frisking a child as though he were a Supermax prison inmate or Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents staking out a church shelter, we cannot give people with badges the license to abuse our civil liberties.
After I wrote about Harris last week, I was flooded with emails and comments from passengers who had experienced similar pat-downs.
A 91-year-old woman described hers as “disturbing and somewhat dehumanizing.”
A business executive pulled aside for a pat-down said her breasts and the inside of her thighs were groped. “I was livid, embarrassed and angry,” she said. “Tears rolled down my face.”
A passenger with an ostomy bag was humiliated by an intimate pat-down in front of business colleagues.
None of these people officially reported their uncomfortable — and probably in some cases illegal — searches.
TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said it is not standard for inspectors to put their hands inside undergarments, as Harris (and many others with similar stories) had described.
But she did say that something that appears to be inserted between clothing and skin could trigger a search.
It took Harris weeks after the incident to make an official complaint. Partly because she was flying again soon and didn’t want to red-flag herself before another trip. But she also wondered whether it was worth reporting. Other searches on that trip were perfectly fine. And she was wondering whether she should fuss.
She is totally not alone.
I was struck by how many other people also struggled with whether to report their negative interaction with security.
Are we those frogs in boiling water, slowly accepting an erosion of our civil liberties, bit by bit?
It’s not only about searches on airlines.
In a matter of months, tough talk on immigration and the promise by President Trump to deport “bad hombres” has morphed into a country where two highly specialized, triple-board-certified neurologists who have saved lives were threatened with deportation.
Pankaj Satija and Monika Ummat are Houston doctors who have lived and worked in the United States legally for a decade, have two U.S.-born children named Ralph and Zooey, and don’t even have as much as a parking ticket. Yet the new orders by the Trump administration prompted an immigration officer to tell them they would have to leave this country within 24 hours, according to the Houston Chronicle. All because of a glitch in dates on their paperwork.
After legal wrangling, calls to legislators and news media, the couple were temporarily allowed to stay.
We’ve gone from a vigorous deportation system — President Barack Obama oversaw the deportation of at least 2 million undocumented immigrants, 90 percent of whom had criminal records — to a draconian one.
In the series of raids conducted by the Trump administration, the Department of Homeland Security was allowed to sweep immigrants with minor offenses or no convictions at all.
This is what happens in a country where White House press secretary Sean Spicer vows that the administration will “take the shackles off” immigration agents.
That has included the increase in electronics searches, where folks — American citizens and visitors — are being told to turn over their phones and passwords at borders.
If it’s not invasive body searches, now it’s a full probe of electronic devices that are an open book for folks with a badge.
They’re searching more cellphones than ever before. Fewer than 5,000 phones were searched in all of 2015. That’s the same number that were scrutinized in the first full month of Trump’s presidency — February 2017 — according to data provided by the Department of Homeland Security to NBC News.
“The indiscriminate search of Americans’ electronic devices at the border raises serious constitutional questions,” according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court last week by civil liberties advocates. “People today store their most intimate information on their electronic devices, reflecting their thoughts, explorations, activities, and associations. Subjecting that information to unfettered government scrutiny invades the core of individual privacy and threatens free inquiry and expression.”
Not a problem for you because you don’t plan on traveling anywhere? Don’t worry. You can be deprived of your civil liberties without even leaving your couch!
Last week the House passed legislation that kills online privacy protections, giving Internet service providers such as Verizon, AT&T and Comcast freedom to do whatever they want with your browsing habits, app usage history, location data and Social Security numbers.
Feel safer yet?
Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh gave us ugly concrete bollards. Thousands of them have been erected around our public buildings for fear of another truck bomb being used in an attack.
The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists gave us enhanced security screening and the increasingly egregious behavior of the TSA.
Attempted shoe bomber Richard Reid is responsible for our bare feet at airports.
And Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up a plane by hiding a bomb in his underwear, gave every woman wearing a feminine hygiene product and every American battling incontinence the possibility of a pat-down bordering on sexual assault.
Accepting these indignities starts small. But little by little, we are giving up our liberty.
How bad does it have to get for us to resist?