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Are we too meek about airport groping? Add to ...

People have always talked about being screwed by their government, but now, in an alarming new development, they are talking about being "sexually assaulted" by it.

Newly minted U.S. bumper stickers protesting the aggressive airport pat-down measures freshly instituted by the Transportation Security Administration include "Grope discounts available" and "If we did our job any better, we'd have to buy you dinner first."

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Those are mildly funny, as is the crude "don't touch my junk" slogan, but behind them is, as an American friend puts it, "an inchoate rage" against the government's violation of personal space. This may just be where most people draw the line.

So even though an "opt-out day" Wednesday to protest against the invasion of the body snatchers quietly fizzled in the U.S. - most travellers just wanted to get to their Thanksgiving turkey - the unease with what some critics are calling "security theatre" is only going to get worse.

We should be leery. There is a lot to ponder in this heavy-handed treatment of travellers, and not just the overarching question of whether this expensive and time-consuming security is really keeping us any safer. (Sure, pat me down but let a guy wearing a latex mask on a flight without even adequate identification? Go figure.)

I honestly don't know what we can do about the escalating security procedures and our discomfort with them. Except stay alert, not just for suspicious looking packages and people, but also for our own civil rights. Are our civil liberties being abrogated? Is there adequate supervision to ensure that an overzealous security guard strictly observes his or her limits? And how do we protect the vulnerable among us - the children, the elderly and the mentally fragile?

I know a young man on his way to London last year who was selected for a pat-down at Pearson International Airport, and asked if he preferred to have this done in private. Hell no, was his smart response, if you are going to do anything to my body, let's do it in public, where others can watch. I'm with him. The last thing I would want is a so-called privacy screen, despite Transport minister Chuck Strahl's promise that, behind them, Canadians would be treated "respectfully." I'm all for transparency. (Funny how everything about this issue lends itself to double entendres.)

Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, yet again not quite understanding that he is not really an "everyman," made a big deal of saying it's no big deal to be patted down at airports. "I have people touching my private parts all day long," he said. But for many people, including sexual abuse survivors or those with psychological disorders, this kind of touching ranges from unsettling to psychologically excruciating. Yes, you can tell everyone to toughen up or don't bother travelling, but the human mind, unbidden, makes all sorts of disturbing connections in the moment of a stressful situation, and most people would describe an airport pat-down as at least mildly stressful.

I have no trouble with sophisticated body scanners; they are impersonal and they do the job. But having had my own interesting relationship with border guards over the years - in the early '80s, I was suspected by one zealous customs guy at Paris's Charles de Gaulle Airport of being a member of the Baader-Meinhof terrorist gang simply because I was a blonde travelling with a Mediterranean looking man - I am wary of individual security personnel. You just have to hope they are reasonable and not having a bad day.

On the other hand, I feel (there we go again) for the security personnel. You think they get off placing their gloved hands on a stranger's breasts or groin area? This is where our unease gets creepy.

Since September 11, 2001, we have lived in such a climate of fear and suspicion that it's difficult to think straight about what is necessary and prudent on the part of authorities, and what is ludicrous overreaching. The New York Times linked to one video showing a three-year-old child getting a vigorous pat-down, with his mom trying to keep her child feeling safe and unthreatened: "Is this the silliest thing you ever heard of?" she's heard trilling as a checker passes a wand over the kid's rear end and touches frequently around the waistline. It does seem ridiculous, and yet, perhaps a determined terrorist would resort to packing his own kid with a bomb to blow up a plane. Who knows.

And so, punctuated by rebellious rage, our resignation and acceptance of more and more onerous travel restrictions continues. We leave for the airport half a day before our flights depart, we carefully comply with the no-liquids rule and, like automatons, we remove our shoes, our jackets and anything else we are told to remove as we shuffle through the lines, entering what one traveller who posted on the New York Times website described as a "meditative" state.

This latest incursion has made some among us snap out of our passivity. Maybe the next bumper sticker slogan regarding airport security checks will hark back to "our bodies, ourselves" days when we had to learn a whole new vocabulary around what was sexually permissible and what wasn't: No means no. Sadly, it might also mean staying at home.

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