The case of Lori Dorn

Sorry, your feelings don’t trump security October 5, 2011. 10:10 pm •
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Robert Sibley’s Ideas & Consequences

Airport Security -- New Rules Image by Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com via Flickr

Lori Dorn, the New York businesswoman and cancer survivor whose “humiliation” at the hands of an airport security official has sparked much media commentary, asks a good question: “At what point does the need for security eclipse human dignity and compassion?”
Answer: Always.
Dorn has attracted considerable attention since she posted a blog about having her prosthetic breast implants patted down after a body scanner detected an anomaly during security check at JFK Airport. She told the TSA agent she was “not comfortable with having my breasts touched,” and was willing to show them a medical card in her wallet explaining that the tissue expanders inserted in her chest contained metallic material that can be detected in security screening procedures.

The security agent – another woman, as it happens – apparently told her to forget the card and, in a voice loud enough to be heard by other passengers, said Dorn she had to submit to a physical examination if she wanted to board her flight. “I had no choice but to allow an agent to touch my breasts in front of other passengers,” Dorn reported.
She goes on to denounce the Transportation Security Administratin for being “insensitive” to the condition of women like herself. After having suffered the “emotional and physical hell” of breast cancer, “the way I was treated by these TSA agents added a shitload of insult to injury and caused be a great deal of humiliation.

“The embarrassment came from trying to explain my situation to someone who didn’t want to hear it. I was not refusing a pat-down if that’s what was necessary, and ultimately I submitted to one. I was objecting to how I was being treated.”
Most of us, I suspect, sympathize with Dorn and, to some degree at least, can identify with her complaint. I haven’t suffered her physical trials, but I’ve been through so many airport security lines since 9/11 that I’ve come to loathe airports, airplanes and ill-educated, overbearing functionaries who think wearing a uniform gives them a licence for boorish behaviour.

But I also recognize that my reaction – and my description of those “functionaries”— can be irrational. In my more reasoned moments – that is, after I’ve cleared security and safely arrived at my destination – I recognize the necessity of what they do given the realities of our world.
Of course, that’s not an excuse for acting like a boor, but I suppose if I had to “pat down” dozens, maybe hundreds, of people everyday who resented me touching them, I might get a little bitter and twisted, too. Clearly, in Dorn’s case, some civility and a modicum of imagination would have gone a long way to mitigating the sensitivities of a woman who has already endured much and, I presume, is highly self-conscious about her body image. Indeed, the TSA has acknowledged its failings and apologized on behalf of its ill-mannered employee. “We do our best to treat passengers with the dignity and respect they deserve, but in Lori Dorn’s case, it looks like we missed our mark.”
To my mind, though, Dorn should reconsider her denunciation in light of the implications of her suggestion that there are times when dignity and compassion should “eclipse” security.

The functionary Dorn encountered sounds like an officious jerk – I’m assuming, of course, the Dorn’s description is an adequate reflection of the incident – but Dorn’s concerns display a rather self-regarding attitude. She seems to think her sense of dignity is more important than the safety of other passengers.
Such solipsistic thinking is misplaced in this age of terrorism. The reality is that in recent years Islamist terrorists have tried to smuggle bombs onto airplanes using a variety of devices disguised to be something other than a bomb.
Surely Dorn has heard of Richard Reid, the so-called shoe bomber, a member of al-Qaeda who attempted in 2001 to blow up an airliner by detonating explosives hidden in his shoes. Perhaps she’s also heard of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “underwear bomber,” who is alleged to have hidden plastic explosives in his underwear while on a transatlantic flight to Detroit in 2009.

Both men claim to have been inspired by the U.S.-born Islamic terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki, who is thought to be responsible for various plots to place disguised bombs on board airplanes, including, most notoriously, parcel bombs hidden inside printers being shipped to the U.S. on passenger jets.
Last week, in an American drone attack in Yemen, a missile strike killed al-Awlaki along with another American-born terrorist, Samir Khan, the editor of an online Al-Qaeda terrorist magazine that offered instructions on how to make and use such bombs.
Dorn is not the first person to feel humiliated by some security functionary. Last year, for example, a flight attendant and cancer survivor was required to show her prosthetic breast during a pat-down after declining to do the full-body scan because of radiation concerns.

But what was the security agent supposed to do? His or her job requires that safety takes precedence over the feelings of passengers. That doesn’t mean those feelings shouldn’t be given consideration – better training and more intelligence might help — but it does mean that they don’t come first.
It’s my understanding that the kind of prosthesis used by Dorn contains a metallic substance that can set off security alarms. Surely if something like that can be included in a breast implant device, then so can plastic explosives, perverse as that might sound. Nor is it hard to imagine some al-Awlaki wannabe coming up with a way to plant a bomb inside a metallic hip joint.
Imagine the hue and cry if some al-Qaeda inspired woman with plastic explosive in her prosthetic breasts succeeded in exploding a bomb on an aircraft because some security official felt compassion and concern for her dignity.

Like it or not, in these days of terrorist threats, however unlikely, those who wear prosthetics — whether they are cancer survivors, have lost a limb, undergone hip or knee replacements, or possess a pacemaker ­– have to reconcile themselves to the “humiliation” of security procedures.
Admittedly, it is easier for me to preach a stoic response to the horrors of airport security since I have yet to endure more than the normal humiliations. Still, I hope that however undignified I might eventually feel at having to show, say, a colostomy bag, it’s better than being blown up in midair.

In any case, the only long-terms solution I can see to such indignities is to keep sending the Islamists our own “devices” their way — drones loaded with Hellfire missiles.

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