Saturday, December 03, 2011

85-Year-Old Woman Says She Was 'Strip-Searched' by TSA

[UPDATED Dec. 5 -- A second elderly woman says she was strip-searched at Kennedy, see insert below].

This looks like it will be seen as still another bone-headed outrage by some TSA agents acting like bouncers at a Guatemalan bottle club -- this time at Kennedy Airport in New York.

According to the New York Daily News, an 85-year-old Long Island woman was crudely strip-searched by TSA agents at Kennedy after she asked not to be forced to go through one of those body-scannmer machines because she uses a defibrillator.

She claims her leg was cut in the process of moving her walker.

One immediate journalistic problem arises here, incidentally, with the initial reporting and editing. The Daily News story hangs on the term "strip search," but never actually quotes the woman as saying those words.

According to the Daily News, "She says the TSA agents showed no sympathy, instead pulling down her pants and asking her to raise her arms." Again, we see a paraphrase in the reporting. What, exactly, did the woman say?

On Saturday, the TSA said that a "strip-search" was never conducted. "While we regret that the passenger feels she had an unpleasant screening experience, TSA does not include strip searches as part of our security protocols and one was not conducted in this case," the TSA statement read.

[UPDATE Dec. 4: The Daily News, in a follow-up on Sunday, went back to the woman for more specifics, I'm glad to see. She was furious that the TSA disputed her account. "They took me into a private screening room and pulled my pants down and then pulled down my underwear," she told the newspaper. "If that’s not strip-searching, I don’t know what else you’d call it."]

The TSA says it acted correctly, and questions whether the woman was actually injured.

[UPDATE Dec. 5 -- A second woman, this one 88 years old, says she was strip-searched by TSA agents at Kennedy. "I had to pull from my sweatpants and I had to pull my underwear, my underwear down," she told WCBS, the CBS affiliate in New York City. Here's the link.]

The TSA denies it "strip searches" old people. It all depends on what "strip-search" means, I suppose.

Quibbling over semantics, I submit, is not the main issue at hand. The issue appears to be the base stupidity of strip searching, or groping, or pulling down the pants of, a 110-pound, 4'11 old woman who was taken to a private room because she declined for health reasons to go through one of those whole-body imaging machines. There has to have been a better way to handle this.

Nor is the TSA response, which appears to be a knee-jerk one calling the woman a liar about being physically injured, the correct response. Lose the boilerplate. The correct response is: We're looking into this right away.

And then actually look into it, and haul those TSA agents from Kennedy into a private room, like an office, for a full explanation. And then report fully.

An 85-year-old woman's definition of a strip search may not exactly be the same as how a prison guard defines one, but that's not really the point. The woman's account is solid enough.

This story has legs, as they say. It seems to me that every time the TSA brass In Washington starts making headway in instilling better trust with the public about the TSA's intention to trim some of the obvious stupidity out of the system, along come some TSA knuckleheads at the local level who get all full of themselves and yank the agency right back into disrepute.

Every time we see TSA agents pawing over very old people -- and I see it regularly, and they're often in wheelchairs -- we become further alienated from the security regime. There has to be a better way.

Common sense, that's one way.


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