TSA screenings: where Islamophobia & ableism intersect

I keep sharing this story in different contexts so I thought I’d right it down in one place for easy sharing.

A few years ago I had to go for a day trip for a work meeting (that could’ve been a Zoom call but this was prepandemic) that involved an early morning flight down & a return trip later that day.

Now I’ve written before about my contamination OCD. Because of that, even prepandemic, airplane trips were terrifying. I had to take my shoes off & touch the dirty floor with feet/socks. I had to have my stuff touch the icky X-ray conveyor belt. Then I had to sit on icky chairs in boarding area as well as the plane. So for each trip I’d have a ton of supplies ready like clean garbage bags to spread on chairs & put my bags in, ziplocks, gloves, wipes, extra socks so I wouldn’t have to dirty the insides of my shoes after walking socked during security check.

Despite all this preparation, I was anxious every single time because I took extra time in the TSA line & ppl don’t like waiting for you. TSA also doesn’t like you doing anything unusual. And to top it off I’m Muslim & wear a head covering though often it’s in the form of a large hat which isn’t visibly associated with Muslim-ness though all my IDs have me in a headscarf & my name is obviously Muslim.

On this morning I thought at first I’d gotten lucky. It was early & somehow I ended up in the line where they swabbed everyone’s hands in line for the “bomb making materials residue” check & were expediting ppl through similar to TSA PreCheck. As they were doing this a TSA officer was standing next to the line being “friendly” & chatting with ppl. Now keep in mind I have an anxiety disorder & am neurodivergent in other ways too. I do chatter a lot when I’m nervous. This officer asked me how I was doing as I looked visibly sick from anxiety. I told him I wasn’t doing great & I hated airports. He said something sympathetic & then because I was so anxious & not the best at reading social cues I blurted out it was because I hated security lines. He said something like I understand. Except it became very clear shortly that what he understood was extremely different from what I had meant.

I eventually made it to the X-ray machine part of the line. At which point they pulled me out of line for “enhanced screening”. Now I was very confused & asked why? Because just a few minutes ago they’d cleared me as part of the expedited line. They wouldn’t answer any of my questions. But pulled me aside. I was starting to panic at this point because they removed all my stuff from the X-ray machine & wanted to do a pat down.

Here’s the thing about me & pat downs: I don’t like anyone touching me since my contamination OCD started a decade ago. Not even for a hug. My family only gets to hug me when they’re freshly showered with clean clothes. I don’t live anywhere near them so this means on average I get hugged a couple times a year. That may give you an idea of how much I started to panic about them touching me. As a Muslim traveler I’ve had enough “randomly selected enhanced screenings” that I knew what to expect which is why it was extra terrifying because they tend to touch you everywhere & touch all your stuff without regard for any cross contamination from dirty items such as the floor. [It’s been standard for years that if you wear a head covering you’ll have to at least do the basic thing of patting down your own head & then they swab your hands for bomb residue & often they’ll do a full pat down themselves too.]

At this point I started telling them that I have OCD & if they’re going to touch me they’ll need to use clean gloves & not touch my upper body after touching my feet without changing gloves. Similar for my bags. Don’t touch the inner contents after touching the outer garbage bag covering without changing gloves. I also offered them my psychiatrist’s card which I happened to have on me in case they had any questions.

Predictably, they didn’t follow my requests. They sort of started to & then when they messed up & I started to reiterate them & cry. At this point they told me I was being uncooperative & called the State Police.

Here’s the other thing you should know. This happened shortly after I’d received my green card. It would be many years till I was even eligible to apply for citizenship. The thought of having the police involved & having some sort of record which could potentially cause immigration problems was suddenly another thing to be terrified about.

Thankfully the state police officer came & didn’t escalate things. They did end up contaminating all my stuff as well as my clothes. When I was finally released I asked for a complaint form as well as their badge numbers. I was given a complaint form but I do recall that when I’d initially asked for the badge number of the officer who had spoken to me in line they’d refused to tell me. I was too traumatized by this incident after to fill out the complaint form and I can’t recall now if the other officers gave me their badge number. I do recall that they made the process difficult.

Anyway after all this I really wanted to just go home but I had to continue my trip because it was a work meeting. Note also that because the rules say I can’t just decide not to fly & leave once I’m in the TSA screening process, I didn’t have an option to leave earlier anyway. Thankfully my boss was not seated next to me as I cried through the entire flight.

Later I learned about TSA’s “behavioral monitoring” program which looks for signs of “suspicious” behaviour. This program was being piloted at the airport I was at & the whole “ officer making friendly chit chat” thing was part of the program designed to catch ppl. I haven’t had the emotional energy to follow this program in terms of if it still exists but it is very clearly ableist as it classifies anxiety as a “suspicious behaviour”.

Funnily enough I’d heard about & thought about getting TSA PreCheck before this & my boss had it & had talked about it being useful. But I had a thing going of not wanting to pay the government extra to do extra surveillance on me especially when they already had all my info including taking my fingerprints many times & all the past money I’d paid into SEVIS as an international student in the past for them to surveil me. Of course after this incident I sucked up my pride & paid for TSA PreCheck. I also now take off my head covering during security screening any time I fly. Since these changes, I have not gotten harassed again. But to me it feels like I pay protection money to the local gang to avoid harassment. In my case this is also a manifestation of the #CripTax.

Since then I eventually became eligible for citizenship but the US citizenship interviews take place in person even during a pandemic & while I feel a lot better due to OCD treatment since then, between being high risk for COVID & lingering OCD symptoms, I was extremely anxious about going to my citizenship interview without the benefit of TSA PreCheck to deal with the security screening. USCIS has a disability accommodations process but it doesn’t extend to security screenings because they’re done by a different agency. The USCIS disability accommodations officer was surprisingly helpful & did talk to the security team for me though. Still, I was panicking enough that I had to hire a lawyer to escort me to my interview even though I’d files the application myself. So that was a cool $1500 in more #CripTax I paid to avoid discrimination by a federal security agency.

These days I’m staying put due to the pandemic but I’m terrified if I have to fly during an emergency what things will be like especially with having to deal with dirty security procedures in a pandemic.

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