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Redirected Aggression: Retaliation and the TSA

What are the TSA pat downs really about?

How many of us have heard stories (or experienced) the horror of modern day air travel in the form of TSA "pat-downs?" In particular, I'm thinking about the treatment that travelers receive who refuse the full body scanners only to have their genitalia poked and prodded by complete strangers in the name of public safety. Many people have commented on the civil liberties aspects as well as the humiliation and downright ridiculousness that seems to occur on a weekly if not daily basis around the country. Young children being inappropriately touched, elderly women having adult diapers examined and post-mastectomy breasts exposed. While I have not personally experienced this, a colleague has and if you have not heard about her story, here's a link to the saga and to her arguments about our dwindling freedoms in the United States. And here's a link to former Miss USA, Susie Castillo, who also had a terrible TSA experience and has a campaign on to petition Congress to change their screening techniques.

Amy's experience (and a book I recently read which I'll get to in a minute) got me to considering several things, the first being the incredible upset many women (and parents) have expressed following such invasions. There is a vast psychological literature on the sensitivity of women to any behavior that is (or could be interpreted as) sexually aggressive. Women have always been vulnerable to such assaults and have a number of adaptations designed to help prevent us from falling victim to sexual predators (despite that, sexual assaults and rapes do occur, especially under conditions when women are vulnerable, no adaptations are perfect). One imagines that a stranger (TSA agent) fondling your breasts or sticking their fingers between your labia would be very distressing just as being grabbed by a stranger on the street and receiving the same treatment would be. I'm actually stunned that a female agent would not realize how upsetting it would be to another woman to be handled in such an intimate way by an aggressive stranger. Instead, it appears that retaliation is on the agent's mind, both when she engaged in the original invasion and with her current attempt to make a buck.

Which brings me to the book I recently read. It's called Payback: Why we retaliate, redirect aggression, and take revenge written by David Barash and Judith Lipton. I found this book particularly interesting partially because so many people have suggested that there is a problem with some TSA agents (this issue has been raised with regard to other jobs in the past as well) taking pleasure in controlling and humiliating others. The title they originally entertained was "Passing the Pain Along" and that is what the book is about. People taking pleasure by wounding others when they've been wounded themselves. In particular, the authors focus on redirected aggression, those times when someone's been hurt (physically or emotionally) and can't take action against the person who hurt them. So they attack someone else (often an innocent bystander). A man comes home from work, humiliated in front of his boss by a co-worker and smacks around his son for a minor infraction (like forgetting to pick up the mail). It's not pretty but it happens more often than we like to think. People who feel the need to redirect their aggression may find certain jobs appealing. And certainly when others make them feel like they have to work harder, they may, if they have the power, simply retaliate directly and dish out humiliation in response.

But there is another issue as well with the TSA and its treatment of air passengers. While some people are refusing to fly, either not traveling or doing so by car or train, others don't really have that option. As a result, for some of them, repeated humiliations and objectifying treatment at the hands of the TSA may build up, increasing the likelihood that they too may start to redirect their aggression towards individuals under their control, children, pets, even spouses or co-workers. More attention needs to be paid to the consequences of the current TSA model. Many people more knowledgeable than I about terrorism and security have suggested that the TSA is going about safety the wrong way, an ineffective and inefficient way. It certainly feels wrong to many Americans who feel violated whenever they fly. And it may compound those wrongs if people end up passing the pain along.