There has been a lot of outrage over the aggressive patdown techniques implemented by TSA. Apart from the serious civil liberties issues, there has been concern over the psychological impact of such searches on those being manhandled, sexually assaulted, badly shaken, or whatever term you prefer to describe the search. Adults and children have felt traumatized, very humiliated, or just plain angry.
But what about the psychological impact of these searches on those conducting them? Because almost all of my interactions with TSA agents have been respectful and cordial, I thought I’d take a few minutes to talk about their welfare, too. One or two articles have quoted agents as saying that the searches are upsetting to them, too, and are hurting morale. But the risk to TSA employees is much greater, I fear, than has been recognized.
What are the consequences of roughly searching people hour after hour, day after day?
If you can only keep yourself vigilant on the job by viewing people — even the elderly, young children, and the obviously disabled — as potential terrorists, how does that affect your view of people when you are not at work? When confronted by irate passengers, will you become angry? defensive? Or will you just shut down emotionally or dissociate so that you can get through your work shift? My concern is that you will be less trusting of people in general. If that happens, you will have suffered a major harm to the quality of your life.
What is the physiological impact of working under such stressful conditions where so many people will be angry at you, resentful, or cursing you out?
Will you develop an ulcer, have frequent headaches or stomachaches, or will you develop high blood pressure or cardiovascular disease? Or maybe you’ll “just” experience “burnout” and all that goes with it – decreased sense of personal adequacy, fatigue, and memory problems. Take a look at some research on job stress and health.
Fast forward 15 years from now. If you continue doing what you are doing every day, what kind of physical and mental shape do you think you’ll be in?
If you are a TSA screener who has been asked to perform these aggressive patdowns, think about your health:
— Refuse to conduct aggressive patdowns unless there is a reasonable suspicion that someone may be hiding a weapon because searches put you at risk of physical injury from innocent but irate passengers or those who will instinctively and reflexively punch or kick out when they are touched because they are victims of past assault. When highly anxious, people have a “fight or flight” response. Since they cannot flee your search, they may respond like a cornered rat and lash out/fight. Over 1 in 6 women have been victims of rape or physical assault in their lifetime. What you are doing to them may be harmful to them psychologically but it may also be harmful to you physically.
— Refuse to conduct aggressive patdowns if you have any moral discomfort about touching people whom you really do not suspect of being terrorists and who do not want to have their privacy or religious beliefs violated.
— Refuse to conduct aggressive patdowns that are not really warranted because of the risks to your physical and emotional well-being.
Remember that our military turned everyday people into those who committed atrocities at Abu Ghraib and then those people were tried as criminals and shunned by most civilized people. I doubt that any of them ever envisioned they could become so callous or engage in horrific conduct, but over time, and under the right/wrong conditions, it could happen to most people. Are you working in an environment that dehumanizes people by treating them all as potential terrorists? Yes. Are you at risk of becoming callous? Probably.
Organize and tell TSA that you want no part of this.
If need be, walk off the job or have a sick-out. Do not “just follow orders” when following orders puts your own health and well-being at risk and may harm innocent people whom you have no desire to harm.
Instead of travellers vs. TSA screeners, please join with us in ending a protocol that does not increase our security, that hurts the dignity and humanity of us all, and puts you at risk of work-related health impairment.
In the meantime, I won’t be seeing you any time soon, as I’m not booking any flights and if I can’t drive somewhere, I guess I’m not going.
But if you happen to be in my area on December 15, maybe you’ll spot me. I’ll be the older woman who looks nothing like a terrorist and who’s wearing a black armband.