War is heck.
After the terrorist strikes, we all recognized that profiling was not only politically expedient, but suddenly politically correct. We accepted, if reluctantly, that certain males of certain nationalities would be subjected to more stringent study at airports, a more thorough going-over at security stops.
We never suspected that the female silhouette would be tracked just as ruthlessly. After all, if Taliban leaders won't even let women out of their houses, they're unlikely to send them up in airplanes. As the endlessly circling Internet joke goes, here's how you beat Osama bin Laden and his gang: Send their women to college.
But as things now stand, female residents of enlightened, 21st-century Denver might as well package up their bras and ship them to the Mideast, where they can be bundled along with copies of Martha Stewart Living and boxes of Hamburger Helper and airlifted to the downtrodden women of Afghanistan. Fancy lingerie isn't going to get you anywhere in this town except in trouble at Denver International Airport. Dare to wear an underwire through security, and you're likely to get a pat-down more intimate than anything you experienced on prom night. And without a corsage or dinner first.
Try to find out what policy supports that groping, and you'll encounter a bigger bunch of boobs than those that raised the alarms in the first place.
A colleague became intimately, and unhappily, familiar with DIA's enthusiastic new search technique last week. Going through security's magnetometer (that's "big box you step through" to the rest of us), she remembers: "I carried nothing with me, and the machine made no audible sound. I wasn't aware anything was amiss until they started channeling me into a separate line.
"No one told me a thing," she continues, getting the whole story off her chest. "I had no idea I'd set off an alarm. I had no idea what they were going to do or who was going to do it."
Here's what they did: First a male security guard searched her with a hand wand, bumping it all over her body in the process. Then she was turned over to a female guard wearing rubber gloves, who had her raise her arms and then patted her breasts, very thoroughly, before turning her around and doing the same to her backside. "When I turned around so that she could pat my butt, I saw a National Guardsman watching and smirking," she says. "Not only do woman have to suffer through the indignity of the pat-down, they're being watched like entertainment."
She didn't mention another sexist slap: Under a state statute only slightly less archaic than the Taliban's rules, women are not allowed to join the Colorado National Guard without the governor's permission. After Senate Majority Leader Bill Thiebaut stumbled on that little gem last month, it was added to several other sections of the law that a legislative committee will study over the next few months, including whether members of the Guard should be given authority to chase terrorists into neighboring states.
That's after they've got all of Colorado's badly behaved busts back in line, of course.
"I want all the women in Denver to know that they may have their breasts touched at DIA," my colleague says.
After hearing her story, I contacted DIA's communications office. Under new FAA regulations, spokesman Chuck Cannon told me, if you set off the magnetometer, you go to a secondary search -- the wand -- and then are patted down. By someone of the same sex, he hastened to point out, adding that his own belt buckle frequently triggers the alarm. So why are women searched if the alarm doesn't sound? Cannon said he wasn't familiar with such situations, which really are in the hands of the company that has the security contract, Argenbright.
Since Argenbright didn't return calls, there was just one thing left to do: Head for the front myself.
And so last Friday, I stripped my person of every last piece of metal -- except for my fillings and a modest underwire. I was carrying no knives (which signs at DIA specifically warn against), nor smuggling any fireworks (ditto). But apparently my brassiere was every bit as dangerous, for as soon as I stepped through the box, even though no alarms sounded, I was sent to a special screening line.
Was it my underwire? I asked.
Random check, a guard said, laughing.
And then I was thoroughly wanded, up and down, front to back. Even though the wand didn't utter a beep, I was passed on to a female guard, who was just saying goodbye to her new friend, a blonde with a suspiciously perky profile. The guard told me what was coming, asked my permission to pat me down (if you refuse, you may not be allowed through security, she added), and then proceeded to give me a thorough groping that ascertained I was not smuggling any vials of anthrax in my "lady bumps," as a friend refers to protuberances of the female persuasion.
Over the weekend, those same bumps and bra passed untouched through two more airport security systems without getting to second base with any guards. My colleague made it out of the Oakland airport with no more human contact than a sympathetic ear from a United agent stunned by her DIA story. Only in this town, it seems, is security so very touchy-feely. (Department of Interior Secretary Gale Norton set off alarms when she passed through DIA security last Thursday; her office did not return calls inquiring whether she, too, got the pat-down treatment.)
Time for another call to Chuck Cannon, who in the intervening days had received an e-mail from a woman commenting on an unexpected pat-down between the thighs. He didn't know much more about the policy than he had a few days earlier, except to note that while some airport magnetometers have silent warning lights, "which show the area of the body where alarms were set off," DIA does not yet possess such machines.
Argenbright is still not returning calls, nor is Randy Weinacht, supervisor of airport operations at DIA for United, which contracts with Argenbright to provide all security screening at the airport. Weinacht had been called down to the customer-service desk to speak to my colleague last week, and showed all the warmth of a speculum. "He told me that if I had a problem with what happened, I should have complained before leaving the screening area," she remembers. "I told him it wasn't right and that there was no sensible reason to be touching women's breasts. He told me that if I felt I'd been touched inappropriately, 'That's your personal interpretation.'"
And certainly not United's problem, Weinacht said, since all airport security matters are dictated by the FAA.
Not according to the FAA's regional office in Seattle. (The local office isn't answering reporters' inquiries.) "A lot of people are putting that on us," FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer says. "It's really an airline issue. Airlines issue their own security program."
True, the FAA has tightened security guidelines since September 11, but "all of this stuff is so fluid," Kenitzer notes. "At their discretion, they can do a pat-down. It's up to the discretion of the individual airline and the individual screener. It depends on the situation."
And can an underwire present a sufficiently threatening situation?
If the machine is set at an unusually high sensitivity level, it can, Kenitzer says, then adds, "My wife wears one, and there's not much metal there."
DIA is still showing plenty of brass, however. Who knows how many minutes would be cut out of those long waits if the airport screeners quit copping free feels?
Until the airport turns down its machines or comes up with an explanation for its underhanded underwire pat-down practices, frequently flying females may want to leave home without it.