By Richard Engel, NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent
NEW YORK – As a foreign correspondent for NBC News, I haven’t spent much time in the United States during the last decade. I return only occasionally to check in with colleagues, visit family, or, this last time, to research a documentary for MSNBC.
The documentary, still in the works, is about the Global War on Terrorism, and what it has done to our military, economy and American society in general. Perhaps because the subject was on my mind, I found a recent travel experience especially meaningful.
Through my work I travel to some of the busiest airports in high-risk areas. Just this year I have been in Egypt, Tunisia, Iran, Bahrain, Libya, France, Italy and many other countries. But I have yet to feel so angry, so embarrassed or so scrutinized as I did going through airport security for a flight from Los Angeles International Airport to New York’s JFK while visiting home.
I’d never been through one of the machines that takes somewhat-but-not-that-blurred naked images in the United States before. I’d only been in one in Iraq.
In Baghdad, I had to go through an earlier model of the machine before I was allowed to enter a courtroom for the trial of Saddam Hussein. That seemed reasonable at the time. There were millions of Iraqis who wanted to kill Saddam, or to at least disrupt his trial. The blurred-naked-photo-machine didn’t bother me then.
It did bother me as I stood with my feet in outlines on the floor and my hands over my head, palms pressed together in Los Angeles. It bothered me even more as I watched a girl who couldn’t have been more than 7 years old forced to assume the same undignified position. I watched her mother help the girl, showing her how to raise her hands in the correct position.
I asked to file a complaint. The TSA agents were very polite. They called over a supervisor who gave me a business card with an online address where I could register my complaint.
“There are reasons why we do this that you may not understand,” the TSA agent told me as she handed me the card.
I would disagree with her on that. I am fully aware of the al-Qaida and terrorist risk. The body-scanning machines were deployed in America after the so-called underwear bomber tried to blow up a plane over Detroit on Christmas day in 2009. I went to Yemen to interview the bomber’s roommates and teachers. I have spent a great deal of time focusing on issues of national security and terrorism. I have interviewed hundreds of security and terrorism expects from law enforcement agencies, the military and the CIA.
I spoke to another TSA supervisor. I told him that his staff had been exceptionally polite, but that I felt it was my duty as a citizen to register a complaint. I said we have to take back rights that are being taken from us in the name of security.
The supervisor happened to recognize me from television.
“Don’t you travel to dangerous places all the time? How can this bother you? Where you go, people are shooting at you,” he said.
“Yes, but this is what the terrorists wanted. They want us to live in fear,” I said.
The supervisor who recognized me was wearing a “Remember 9-11” pin on his dark blazer.
“This is why Americans need to take back what we’re losing,” I told him, pointing to his pin. He seemed unconvinced and suggested I file a complaint.
I’ve watched American troops fight, and sometimes die, to drive the Taliban and al-Qaida from Afghanistan, and to secure free elections in Iraq. They have been fighting for other people to be free. I was horrified to see that despite their sacrifices we’d let ourselves become a nation that appears to be driven by fear.
I was in the subway in New York a few days before traveling to Los Angeles. I grew up in New York. I always read the advertisements on the subways – there's not much else to look at. Generally, they're for acne treatment or public service announcements.
This time, one of the advertisements caught my eye. It was for quick, inexpensive associate degrees. One of the majors advertised was in accounting, which has long been popular. There always seems to be a need for accountants. The other major was in "homeland security." Standing there, looking up at the ad as I jostled in the subway car, I realized what a growth industry security has become in the United States.
To be clear, I fully support effective and robust security measures and understand why they can be necessary. I loathe terrorists who have killed thousands of innocent civilians over the past 10 years, including some of my friends and colleagues from New York to Afghanistan to Iraq. But at the airport, watching a 7-year-old girl go through a full body scan in public – just so she could fly out of the city of Los Angeles – made me wonder how much we have lost.