Oh hey! I didn’t forget about you. I’ve just been in a state of apathy since getting home from London. The knee injury turned out to be a complete ACL tear, which I had surgery for last week on August 16th. Classes started on Monday, August 23rd. I’ve been in happy vicodin haze in between. Actually, when your Admin law professor declares that he’s trying a “no laptops” experiment, vicodin makes that blow a little easier to take.

I found out yesterday that I was apparently subjected to an outrageous and invasive strip search with weak cause at Heathrow Airport to get on my flight home to Boston. You’ll note I discovered that it was outrageous and invasive and a strip search yesterday August 26th, but I flew home on July 3rd.

I know! I was surprised, too.

So here are the facts:

When I went through the metal detector at Heathrow, I had my knee brace on. My knee brace had large metal supports on either side of my leg. The metal detector objected, I explained that I had a knee brace on, and the security agent said they I needed to go through the body scanner, would I please follow her? Hell yes I would- I wanted to see this thing. Also, I wanted to get home.

I followed the agent to a small room with the scanner in one corner, where we were joined by a male agent. I stood in the corner, turned slowly in a circle, and waited for the screen to turn green, indicating I was free to go. I asked, excitedly, if I got to see the scan, and the female agent laughed and said no, not even they got to see it. The images are analyzed by someone in another room, and then deleted.

Before the screen turned green, the phone rang, and the analyst told the agent she needed to take a look on the knee brace- it wasn’t clear from the scan what was going on there. I had a feeling this was going to be the case (it was taking too long for the screen to go green) and tried to roll up on my pants leg to show the brace. The ankle opening was too narrow to go over brace and knee, so I said, “So I should drop ’em?”

The female agent apologetically nodded, and the male agent made for the door, asking both the female agent and me if he should get another female. The female agent tossed it to me, and I said I was fine without one. He left, I dropped my pants, the female agent poked at the knee brace and said “yup, that’s a knee brace! …and it must be hot out.” I remember she poked at the edges a bit, presumably looking to see if she could see anything hidden in it. She smiled, and called the analyst back and told them it was fine, they questioned her a bit (“no…. no, it’s a knee brace. Yes I looked. It’s clear.”) and she nodded to me. I started to put myself to rights and gather up my stuff (and I travel with a LOT of stuff. Redheadedgirls do not pack light), she hung up the phone and then slathered on a lot of hand sanitizer, because neoprene knee brace + humidity + lugging my um, luggage to the Tube, plus running around all of Kings Cross St Pancras looking for a fucking elevator down from the street level (AND NOT FINDING IT) = lots of sweat. It was pretty damn gross, so, yeah, hand sanitizer. I said thank you, she said thank you for my cooperation, and I went on my merry way and eventually got home on a flight filled with the Boston Youth Symphony.

The entire transaction and occurrance was professional, respectful, and cordial. No animosity or power trips or anything, just “this is the job, thank you for your cooperation.” I was ALWAYS thanked, every time I did a security thing from this to getting my bag searched going into any museum.

My first day in London was very breif, since I hopped on a train to Paris that afternoon. I got to St Pancras International and was subjected to my first British Pat Down when going to the gate for the Eurostar. I sent my crutches through the x ray machine (they always asked, on both sides of the Atlantic, if I could walk through the metal detector without them) and went through the metal detector, it went off, and the female agent patted me down. And it was an actual pat down- like they were looking for something and were doing it in a manner that might find it. It also made me go “Hey now, normally someone buys me a drink first!” This happened anytime I went through a metal detector in an official place- Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, the train station, Heathrow.

I stopped being surprised. Because there’s a couple things at work here: in the US, patdowns of this nature (I admit I’ve never been subject to a police patdown- it’s always been a security-type patdown) is more for form rather than function, and somewhat terrified of causing discomfort in the subject. There’s very light skimming of the clothing of ten with the backs of the hands (so the agent can’t be accused of feeling people up, I guess, which could notice something large like a gun, but not something small. The British patdowns were feeling everything short of private areas that was covered by clothing- ribs, back, both legs, arms if I was wearing sleeves (which was rare- it’s summer and I have no guilt about inflicting my arm flab on the world).

But, and here’s the thing, there’s several factors that explain the difference: in the US< it's scary brown people who are The Bad Guys. I am a nice looking white girl, and I have been all my life, and that has always affected my experience with police- get pulled over for sort of running a red light? Warning. Ever had my bag searched by the MBTA police where they swear it's totally random and they never profile, not ever? Not once. Nice looking white girls don't blow stuff up.

Unless, you know, they are Irish. The Brits have more experience with Irish terrorism than Middle Eastern based terrorism, so they, historically, wouldn't rely on racial profiling.

Also, the British have been dealing with people trying to blow stuff up for centuries, rather than, from the American perspective, for the past 9 years (McVeigh who?). So, you know, less focus on the appearance of security, and more on actual security. (I don't have a lot of patience for the security theater that is designed to make people think something is being done but is so wishy washy and inefficient that it doesn't do much but piss people off)

So that brings us to yesterday (or, by the time I actually post this, Thursday). A friend posted in her blog that she, like the ACLU, did not like the idea of enhanced patdowns. I gave my experience with enhanced patdowns, and said that I never felt violated in anyway because each and everyone was done professionally and courteously (initial “um, don’t I get a drink first?” reaction notwithstanding) and tossed in an abbreviated version of the “I dropped trou in Heathrow!” story because.. I actually think it’s kind of a funny story.

(I’m weird, okay?)

And this other person commented that my story did not reassure her in the slightest- she found it terrifying. I asked for clarification and she said “I was referring more to the airport strip search predicated on the fact that you were wearing a knee brace.”

I expanded my recollection of events, and pointed out that a) had my pants rolled up enough to expose the brace, or had I bean wearing a skirt or gauchos, that would not have been an issue, and b) I said it first, so “subjected” seems to be a strong word. And that the metal detector and the body scan didn’t make it clear what it was, so… what were they supposed to do? Take my word for it that it was just a brace?

And she said that since I was compelled to remove clothing for weak cause, just because I had the audacity to try and fly with an injury.

Oh, seriously now? “We can’t tell what that is, can we please see it?” is not weak cause. And it wasn’t “trying to fly with an injury,” it was flying with a thing on my leg that the scanners couldn’t identify. Again, the entire encounter was professional, and they were concerned with my comfort and my ability to do the things they were asking me to do. (I admit I did sort of regret my choice of underwear that day, but you can’t always win, especially when you’re going home after a month to where the laundry is cheaper.)

Now on a side tangent- because the five people who patted me down in the UK were completely professional about it doesn’t automatically mean that everyone who performs those types of patdowns are. And there are PLENTY of stories about TSA agents who are complete douchebags who do use their position as a way to molest women, and will use this as an excuse to do more. HOWEVER, I also think that if you’re going to have security, you should actually try and make things secure, and doing patdowns that have the possibility of finding something, rather than just wasting time and making it LOOK like you’re doing something and praying that will have enough of a deterrent effect could be a way of doing just that. I think that effective security is better than no security, and effective security is better than ineffective security, and I’m not convinced that ineffective security is better than no security.

(That said, I don’t have a lot of patience for people who try to tell me that they don’t need to get to the airport early because it SHOULDN’T have to take them 45 minutes to get through security, and that they shouldn’t have to get rid of their more-than-3-ounces of liquid because TSA knows what that product is. Just because it’s stupid doesn’t mean it’s not reality- if you miss your flight because you refuse to accept the reality of the stupid, who really is the dumbass?)

So, long story, um, long, there is my story of how I was apparently subjected to an invasive strip search at Heathrow. I’m glad someone told me- I NEVER WOULD HAVE KNOWN OTHERWISE.