Dignity, Objectification, and the TSA

Thomas beat me to the nun picture, and Brad has a good article on reasons from civil liberties that the TSA ought not be, I believe there is another reason from the Catholic perspective that the TSA is bad news: Chastity.

Unlike Brad, I didn’t have any real problem apart from irritation when I first experienced the TSA back in 2002. In fact, in a late-2002 flight I had a one-way ticket from Denver to Reagan National. I was subjected to multiple checks—they searched my carry on, gave me the pat-down, waved the wand over me, and sent me on my way. Three different times. Annoying, but somewhat understandable. It didn’t cross the line that I have drawn for how much liberty can be surrendered for safety.

But now…

TSA Body Scan Image

Female, front and back on left; Male front and back on right. While the TSA blurred the face, I blurred the other sensitive parts.

Now they can take images like the one I’ve embedded of you or your child and place their hands on the most intimate parts of your or your child’s body. And only because you were randomly selected by the computer, or the walk-through detector beeped twice?

This is a violation of human dignity. This is the government declaring human dignity less important than a random selection, simply because one  wishes to travel by air.

No one, save your spouse or doctor, has a right to that intimate knowledge of you, unless you surrender that right through a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. A random computer selection is not a reasonable suspicion.

And beyond that, consider the individual who is charged by the government to, erm, “check you out.” That is a flesh and blood person, not a machine devoid of appetites, concupiscence, and memory. While the government officially does not retain a copy of the image, the human being who must examine the image has a memory and does not forget so easily. While sins of the flesh afflict some more than others, it beggars the mind to believe that TSA employees all possess angelic purity.

The government, for no good reason, forces objectification of the traveller and places the agent in a near occasion of sin. This is a serious issue.



  • Phil

    […]the human being who must examine the image has a memory and does not forget so easily. While sins of the flesh afflict some more than others, it beggars the mind to believe that TSA employees all possess angelic purity.

    I find this analysis interesting, but I’m not sure if it’s entirely consistent with Catholic doctrine, since Catholic doctrine tends to be very consistent. You’re basically saying that these individuals, in the course of their job, are required to look at naked people, and that this is problematic. But clearly, the prima facie issue is whether the search/viewing of the naked person is necessary. We don’t consider it inappropriate that doctors, police officers, and even coroners are required to look at naked people in the course of doing their jobs. As such, the first issue to examine is whether the search or scan is necessary. If it is necessary, then it seems just as appropriate as a necessary exam by a doctor. If it is unnecessary, then the appropriateness of requiring a TSA employee to view a naked body is moot, because the scan should never be done in the first place.

    • Tom Crowe

      Excellent point, Phil. First, I agree that the prime issue is whether such a scan is necessary, which I would posit it is not necessary in the completely random manner in which they apply it. Second, you bring up doctors, coroners, police officers, etc. Good question. First, let’s consider the training. Doctors and coroners (who pretty much have to be doctors, so we’ll treat them together) have many years of clinical training, during which they are trained to treat all aspects of the human body in a clinical manner. They are trained to develop a professional manner and attitude vis-a-vis the human body, thus reducing their susceptibility to experiencing others’ bodies subjectively. As for police officers, a search of comparable invasiveness only happens with “reasonable suspicion.” Random selection of the citizenry walking past the federal building doesn’t warrant such a draconian search regime. Rare is the police officer who witnesses a strip search at all, and even rarer is the one who witnesses more than one per day. But even at that, the doctor/coroner is granted permission and the police officer has reasonable suspicion, so the issue of right to privacy is set aside. Compare to the TSA scanner. They don’t receive training beyond how to use the equipment and a basic idea of the shape of harmful items. They don’t receive permission: they take it. Not quite the same as either a doctor/coroner or an actual police officer. Plus, those charged with viewing the images look at how many? during an eight-hour shift? That’s a little different.

      On the topic of necessity, I do not believe such a scan is never called for or necessary, just that such a scan on a random basis (or for EVERYONE) is a violation of unreasonable search and seizure.



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