Travel
Lori Dorn, The TSA, and the Five Stages of Grief

I don’t fly very often–in fact, I think that I’ve been on three flights in the past 10 years. The last flight was a family trip to Orlando out of JFK in New York–and I can still recall how humorless our airport experience was.

“This doesn’t feel like the start of a family vacation,” I muttered to my husband as we waited in a stalled, somber security line surrounded by four marines holding guns and a half dozen TSA agents barking commands to the crowd. “This feels like we’re crossing through a military checkpoint–it’s kind of creepy.”

Worse than creepy, however, was Lori Dorn’s recent TSA experience. As Dorn (wife of Laughing Squid’s Scott Beale) recounts in a recent blog post:

Yesterday I went through the imaging scanner at JFK Terminal 4 for my Virgin America flight to San Francisco. Evidently they found something, because after the scan, I was asked to step aside to have my breast area examined.  I explained to the agent that I was a breast cancer patient and had a bilateral mastectomy in April and had tissue expanders put in to make way for reconstruction at a later date.

I told her that I was not comfortable with having my breasts touched and that I had a card in my wallet that explains the type of expanders, serial numbers and my doctor’s information (pictured) and asked to retrieve it. This request was denied.  Instead, she called over a female supervisor who told me the exam had to take place.  I was again told that I could not retrieve the card and needed to submit to a physical exam in order to be cleared. She then said, “And if we don’t clear you, you don’t fly” loud enough for other passengers to hear.  And they did. And they stared at the bald woman being yelled at by a TSA Supervisor.

I’ve been through long hospitalizations with my son and I know how it feels to come out the other side–you’re grieving, shock-y, ping-ponging emotionally. Dorn isn’t even fully out the other side yet: she is still recovering from chemo, coping with the loss of her breasts, hair, and vitality, and waiting to undergo reconstructive breast surgery. The prosthetics that set off the sensors at the airport are “tissue expanders,” devices that will enlarge over time to create pockets in Dorn’s chest where her breast implants will be inserted. The process–which I’m going to assume causes tenderness in the post-surgical site–is described this way on the product’s website:

[The expander is] a silicone shell that is filled slowly over time with saltwater to stretch the skin and make room for your implant. The expander is placed under [the] chest skin at the site of [the] planned reconstructed breast. A small needle is used to fill the expander with sterile saline. The needle is inserted through the skin to a “fill port” located inside the expander. Gradually over time, the overlying tissues expand.

To be clear: Dorn was not refusing to be examined by the TSA agent, she was simply asking for a private examination (which according to the TSA’s website, she was entitled to) and most likely wanted to explain to the agent how easily she could be hurt prior to being examined. Instead of being treated with compassion and dignity, she was loudly threatened.

After this story started to gain media traction, the TSA sent Dorn a letter of apology where it acknowledged that it had “missed the mark” in training agents to be culturally competent in engaging with prosthetics-wearers, and said:

TSA has just rolled out an in-service technical training course focused on screening prosthetics. This curriculum focuses on all types of prosthetics and the requirements of the standard operating procedures related to the screening of Persons with Disabilities and Medical Conditions. It is a four part curriculum with one of the modules focusing on different scenarios and the decision making (critical thinking) process and the outcomes of the decision made by the officer. The training should be complete nationwide in a little over a year.

To my mind, the fact that the TSA is only getting around to this sort of training now, 10 years after the 9/11 attacks, is not the only “missed mark.” Dorn’s experience is part of a larger problem: security theater in a post 9/11 world. The tragedy isn’t just that Dorn was treated with such cavalier insensitivity, it is that the cruelty was patently unnecessary–who really believes that a TSA agent requires critical thinking training in order to treat a cancer survivor compassionately? Perhaps it is not the agents’ training that is flawed. Perhaps it is a society that is itself still shock-y and ping-ponging over the 9/11 attacks, stuck in Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ bargaining phase of grief. Collectively we have been saying, “Yes, we’ll give up our human right to dignity and compassion, we will not question creepy, intrusive government behavior…just bring back the safety we used to believe existed.” And yet:

When people are bargaining, you should not offer them any false hope. Although there may be practical things they can do which you can offer them, never offer them something that cannot be fulfilled.

Sometimes the best you can do at this stage is point even more at the inevitable, even though this may well tip them into depression (which may well be a necessary move).

How do you engineer an intervention for an entire country gone neurotic with grief? How do we find a balance between airline safety and humane compassion? Before anything else, people who have gone through trauma need their experiences heard. From her blog, Dorn recognized that when she encouraged people this week to share their “horror stories” on Twitter, cc’ing the TSA Blog Team:

Many people shared their TSA horror stories on Twitter cc’ing the TSA Blog Team, inundating them with @ replies. This was the feedback that caused a government bureaucracy to acknowledge something went wrong. Not me.  And I thank everyone for it.

I’m not sure if I can say “Mission Accomplished” quite yet, but I can say that the mission has begun.  And that’s a helluva start when you’re dealing with the TSA.

Sharing our stories cannot be the endgame, however. Where do we go from here?

Andrea Schwalm

Andrea is a Family Development Credentialed parent consultant from Long Island, New York. She takes way too many photographs and really hopes that the aliens who find Earth first are the friendly, Star Trek kind...

17 Comments
  1. The problem with the TSA is that they are in charge, and when you put one group of humans in charge of another group, they tend to dehumanize each other. See the classic guards-vs-prisoners psychological experiment from Stanford – http://www.prisonexp.org/.

  2. From the TSA’s response to Lori’s blog: “The Federal Security Director for JFK has personally reached out to learn more about what happened so he can help ensure that she and others will have better travel experiences in the future.”

    This is so ridiculous. How to make the travel experience better? How about actually trusting someone when they say that they have a medical condition rather than considering such statements to be suspicious or the tell-tale sign of someone who’s “up to something”?

    There was also the story of the gentleman with the urostomy bag that burst during a pat-down procedure despite his request to explain his condition to the agents. That didn’t turn out well….

    Why is it so hard for the TSA to sit down and brainstorm many of the “out of the norm” situations their agents might encounter and then develop appropriate policies *before* such incidents occur? It’s not hard. I brainstormed using bubble diagrams in elementary school.

  3. Arthemise

    I’ve been leery of flying because of my weight and the chance they’d embarrass me and make me pay for two seats. I have a Lap-Band (and still have the weight), and I can only imagine the horrors they’d put me through when they see that on the screen. Hm, is a 17-hour drive to Disney World that bad after all?

  4. Jessamyn
    Jessamyn

    I think your connection to the stages of grief is a really interesting analysis! Thank you so much for a new way to think about this.

  5. Granted, I’m a guy, so can’t fully appreciate what this woman had to go through. But I can empathize and it’s crystal clear to me that the TSA people who were screening her couldn’t even do that.

    They don’t need critical thinking skills training, they need *human being* training, because clearly, they are missing any concept of humanity. If you work for TSA, listen up. It’s not just a job, you’re dealing with real people here, and their only “crime” is that they want to get onto an airplane. No, they are not all potential terrorists, and no, you are not demonstrating weakness by treating them with respect and even kindness. If you’re a TSA employee and you are unable to incorporate those simple concepts in everything you do, every day, for every passenger you screen, you should immediately find another job that doesn’t involve interacting with people.

    • Many years ago, after 9/11, a guy tried to get on a plane wearing a button that said “Suspected Terrorist.” He was forced to deplane. He was making a statement and expected to get deplaned, but the simple truth is that we are all suspects, and it’s unacceptable. The 9/11 attacks were one-off events and will not be duplicated: no group of passengers will allow a plane to be hijacked in that manner again because they know it will mean death. The TSA proves itself time and again to be a farce when you see the rate at which they fail to detect weapons that pass through screening gates.

  6. The bad news is that anyone with an intact set of humanity knows better than to join TSA.

    • Andrea Schwalm

      Russ, if it were structured differently, with oversight that demanded Performance Quality Improvement and stakeholder involvement, maybe it wouldn’t be such a horrible place…

  7. Traitor John Pistole occasionally offers an insincere apology so the mainstream media can parrot the TSA criminals’ concerns about “balance.” Human garbage Pistole apologized to an older gentleman when they soaked him in his own urine – and the media ate it up. I didn’t see any microphones and cameras shoved in Thug Pistole’s face when they did the same thing to the same older gentleman a second time.

    • Andrea Schwalm

      I’ve read about other incidents like the one you describe, Jon. For anyone that has an ounce of empathy, they are heartbreaking.

  8. John B

    I have been unemployed for some time now, but I would rather die than work for the TSA or bottom feeder bill collectors. I have zero respect for either occupation.

  9. What is a simple fact is that the TSA should not be doing strip searches, no matter how convenient with the scanners, or in any way touching our genitals and breasts. Period.

    Police can’t do that without reasonable suspicion and the TSA shouldn’t do that either.

    Lori’s case is extreme because of where the metal is on her body. In the past, a simple metal-detecting wand (not used anymore) would have sufficed for most people, especially those assaulted by the TSA for their knee, hip, or prosthetics. Unfortunately, they illegally grope everyone now regardless.

    This government-sponsored sexual assault needs to be stopped.

    • Andrea Schwalm

      Jeff, that is very much what this feels like to me: government-sanctioned sexual assault. In any other environment this wouldn’t be tolerated–but if you want to get on a plane (which you might have to do in order to keep your job, depending on your position), you have no choice but to allow someone to touch you intimately.

      An agency like this should have an accreditation process that requires that workers are regularly pulled off the floor and provided with cultural competency training. There should be an oversight committee where complaints are addressed that is filled with customers, stakeholders and agency members. And all of those things require a larger, not a smaller government…

  10. “The bad news is that anyone with an intact set of humanity knows better than to join TSA.” Russ, you are absolutely correct. Years ago when they were looking for employees, I thought about applying, but even then I sensed that something was very wrong. So glad I didn’t waste my time training for a job that obviously required a prerequisite level of ignorance and brainwashing.

  11. Jennifer D.

    We just returned from Boston yesterday. I have never been a big fan of flying and after 9/11 can sincerely say I hate it. But everytime I fly, or hear a story like Ms. Dorn’s I am reminded of a quote from Ben Franklin: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety. ”
    We have been on a slippery slope with our freedoms since 9/11. The TSA is just one example where our rights are being violated as well as our physical selves.

  12. They don’t need critical thinking skills training, they need *human being* training, because clearly, they are missing any concept of humanity. If you work for TSA, listen up. It’s not just a job, you’re dealing with real people here, and their only “crime” is that they want to get onto an airplane. No, they are not all potential terrorists, and no, you are not demonstrating weakness by treating them with respect and even kindness. If you’re a TSA employee and you are unable to incorporate those simple concepts in everything you do, every day, for every passenger you screen, you should immediately find another job that doesn’t involve interacting with people.
    +1

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