There’s a new threat this Thanksgiving, beyond eating too much turkey and dealing with annoying relatives. The recent increases in airport security have triggered a loosely organized Internet boycott of full-body scans. According to an ABC News story,
The protest, National Opt-Out Day, is scheduled for Wednesday to coincide with the busiest travel day of the year…. Body scans take as little as 10 seconds, but people who decline the process must submit to a full pat-down, which takes much longer. That could cause a cascade of delays at dozens of major airports, including those in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta…..The protest was conceived in early November by Brian Sodergren of Ashburn, Va., who built a one-page website urging people to decline the scans. Public interest in the protest boomed this week after an Oceanside, Calif., man named John Tyner famously resisted a scan and groin check at the San Diego airport with the words, “If you touch my junk, I’ll have you arrested.”
The Transportation Security Administration has gotten an earful of complaints from both the traveling public and government officials in recent weeks. There’s no doubt that people are upset. But amid all the cries about junk touching and bra searches, there’s some doubt that the boycott would be effective.
Americans have a long history of creating ineffective pseudo-protests against policies and industries they don’t like. For example in 1999 a group upset over high gas prices created a campaign called the “Great Gas Out.” Chain e-mails were sent to millions of people asking them to not buy gas on a specific day “to send a message to the gas companies know that we won’t stand for high prices.” The idea was that the oil industry would be hit where it hurts—on the bottom line—by the power of the American consumer, and straighten up their act.
This “citizen protest” (and the several other “opt out days” that followed in later years) was a total failure. The misguided activists, though tapping into widespread public anger, had badly misunderstood basic supply and demand economics. Most people ignored the call to arms (or to stay away from the gas pump), though the protest would be been ineffective even if millions of people had participated, for many reasons including that gas stations have little control over the prices they charge.
It seems likely that the same fate will befall the Opt Out Day. There’s an American idiom, “Cutting off the nose to spite the face,” that describes the actions of a person who overreacts to a problem or irritant, and pursues a course of action that does more harm to the person than to the source of the problem.
Just as the premise of the “Great Gas Out” day was fatally flawed, the “Great Opt-Out” day is based on a faulty premise. The TSA and its agents don’t really care if travelers make their flights, or get to their connections on time. That is not their responsibility; their job is to provide security screening (however intrusive and ineffective it may be). The TSA official will be going home at the end of his or her shift, and doesn’t really care whether it takes you ten minutes or ten hours to go through security. If a passenger wants to spend longer in security, that’s their choice.
Furthermore, it’s unlikely that public pressure from the boycott would change TSA policy; news reports of any extraordinary travel delays will make it clear that the hassles were caused not by the TSA security measures but instead by the protesters. Those who choose to participate in the opt-out protest as a way to “stick it to the man” are certainly within their rights. But the delays caused by those protesters will likely have consequences for others who do not object to the body scans—and there’s no way of “opting out” of that.
Photo: A man undergoes a pat-down during TSA security screening, Nov. 19, 2010, at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)