Thursday, November 20, 2014

Safe Travels

Five days after I was raped I flew to Boston. The security lines were endless, claustrophobic, and humming with the restless panic of herds before a lightning storm. I took off my shoes and my belt, and walked through the metal detector. A shrill alarm went off, and a security guard shoved me forward towards a female guard for additional screening. She slid her arm roughly up the inside of my thigh and I jerked away. She grabbed me by the arm and asked me if I had a problem. Did I? She asked. She sneered down at me.  Did I? Did I have some kind of problem? Did she need to get a supervisor to address my complaint or report my uncooperative behavior?
This was in 2001, when travelers were so cowed by the need for security measures in airports we would submit to any indignity without complaint. To be uncooperative was to be suspicious, and to arouse suspicion was terrifying.

No, I said. Of course not.

In 2004, I was traveling across Europe with some friends. We wandered out of our car looking for a covert place to sneak an illicit cigarette. At the far end of the train was a car that at first glance seemed unoccupied, but which was soon revealed to contain two male backpackers lying across two separate rows of seats, studiously avoiding eye contact with one another and masturbating furiously.
My friend and I stood there, aghast. They looked at us, looked us up and down. They didn't stop. One of them said, "Hey, you can't smoke in here."

My intention in relating the above anecdotes is not to advocate that we be more assertive with the TSA, or that more people should be allowed to smoke on trains. I would like to be clear that neither of these activities are healthy. But for me, almost fifteen years later, neither are airports and neither are trains. Airport security gives me the screaming jeebies. A bunch of angry people in uniforms usher you humorlessly into a grim little oubliette where you stand in a defenseless, ridiculous posture while an invisible robot smells your ass to see if you're carrying anthrax or incendiaries, and on the other side they give you the gropes to be sure that your underwire bra doesn't convert to a ground cannon. This gives me the pukes.

I don't want to do things that give me the pukes, but I sometimes have to. This is the same kind of dilemma we see evinced in all decisions that are made by agencies on our behalf to protect populations. Unilateral mandates, like seat belt laws, transportation security measures, and water fluoridation are things that we are subjected to, often in violation of our autonomous interests, because they are considered to be in the interest of greater good for the population. I can't disagree with this. I support vaccines, because I do not want to die bleeding out my eyes if there is any possible way to avoid this. And so by the same token, I support transportation security measures, because I want to feel safe when I travel.

Except I don't feel safe.

One of my favorite feminists wrote this incredible piece about a recent experience on a train in Scotland. She and another female traveler, after being harassed with insults that escalated to threats of violence and rape, were advised that they should have changed seats or complained to a (non-existent) employee. No one intervened.

For our safety, we are advised not to leave our bags unattended, because they will be subject to seizure and search. We are advised not to lock our bags, because this will make it more difficult for the bags to be inspected, for our safety. We are advised to hold still, with our arms above our heads, while complete strangers run their hands over our breasts and between our legs, for our safety. And we agree to these compromises of our autonomy in the interest of contributing to the overall safety of our environment.
But who bears the ultimate responsibility for our safety when we travel? Most seat pockets contain safety information, and some variation on the assurance that our safety is the primary concern of <insert business here>. But whose safety?  And what are we being protected from?

A few years ago, I sat on a plane next to an aggressive drunk who spent the entire four hour flight relentlessly supplying me with details about his penis, and some limited perseverations on the theme of his ex-wife (a "Real cunt"). He leaned over my seat, slurring broken heartedly about his vasectomy. He squeezed my purse, mistakenly believing it was my thigh. He asked intrusive questions.
"Excuse me," I said politely. You have to be polite, because if you are not, you are a bitch. You are not firm, or severe, or forbidding. You are not assertive or clear. You are a real cunt, and this is inadvisable, because nothing is going to piss this guy off like a real cunt. We all know not to provoke predators. And so, smilingly, I said, "Would you mind giving me a little more space? I'm feeling a little claustrophobic."

He said, "You don't need to be such a bitch about it."

For the rest of the flight, he monopolized the armrest. He pretended not to hear me when I asked to use the bathroom, forcing me to squeeze past his legs and lap. He slumped against me while his hand scrabbled against the seat, searching blindly for my leg. He sat too close.
Perhaps I should have asked to move. Perhaps I should have asked a flight attendant for help. But the flight was full. The intervention of the flight attendant would only have escalated the situation. And so I sat there, for hours, while this man menaced me. I did not feel safe.

When we participate in the security theater, we are doing it with the understanding that we can all contribute to making travel safer and more comfortable for everyone. But the issues we prioritize give us a lot of insight into our values, and into whose priorities are being represented. So whose security are we taking steps to protect? Should the fact that you walked through a metal detector or elected not to bring a rifle onto the train represent the extent of your responsibility for the safe environment of others? Or do we owe it to the people around us to step in and intervene when people become the victims of threatening behavior? How far are the businesses we patronize responsible for the safety of their customers and their environs? Is there a special TSA machine that can detect assholes, sexual predators, and misogynists?

We are a world preoccupied with the security of our travels. It seems so odd that we would overlook a fundamental requisite for the personal safety of so many.
#SafeTravels, everybody.