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Traveler who resisted TSA pat-down is glad his moment of fame is nearly over

John Tyner knows he’s at minute 14.5 of his headlong rush into the national spotlight. And he couldn’t be happier.

An audio recording capturing Tyner’s don’t-touch-my-junk showdown with San Diego airport security screeners a week ago brought the software engineer instant celebrity. His story has been featured on all the major news and late-night comedy shows. Bloggers have alternately praised and excoriated him.

A “Don’t Touch My Junk…and Don’t Touch My Kid’s Junk, Either” T-shirt is reportedly selling quickly on the Internet. So are other commercial products using Tyner’s widely-heard challenge to a Transportation Security Administration screener: “If you touch my junk I’ll have you arrested.”

But after a dizzying week of interviews explaining why he refused to submit to a full-body scan or a pat-down search, the former bicycle racer who considers himself a Libertarian says he’s ready to slide back into his normal life.

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“I’ll be back at work on Friday,” said Tyner, 31, pausing at midweek for a brief interview between other media calls. “Hopefully I’ll be able to get back on my bike again soon.”

Tyner’s story has touched a nerve with the flying public, dividing passengers into two camps: those willing to put up with invasive security measures for safety’s sake and those saying enough is enough.

“If you don’t like the screenings, take the train!” advised a number of blog commenters. Others confessed to their own personal humiliation at undergoing X-ray screenings that show the naked body, or to pat-downs so thorough that critics call them molestations.

One 32-year-old woman said she was in tears after a full-body scan Monday as she boarded a flight out of Los Angeles International Airport to attend a family member’s funeral. Adriana, who asked that her full name not be used, said she was molested as a child and that the screening experience was so traumatic that she is actually considering train travel for the first time in her life.

“People who have not been violated before can’t understand how it feels for a stranger to see more of you than your doctor,” she said. “Someone should try to explain the situation for those that quietly and continuously take the torment.”

Sandra Elliott of Denver said she is no prude but that a recent pat-down at John Wayne Airport was so humiliating that she is considering no longer traveling to see her grandchildren in Newport Beach.

“These women’s hands were thrust firmly in my crotch. They pulled up my sweater and stuck their hands inside of my pants, plus thoroughly groped my breasts,” Elliott said of screeners she encountered before her Nov. 1 flight back to Denver. “Please know that I am not a prude. I am not adverse to being touched by others, sometimes intimately, but this was absolutely overboard.”

She was so upset, Elliott said, that she filed a complaint with the TSA and contacted her congressional representative.

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The media latched onto Tyner’s refusal in part because it occurred close to Thanksgiving, one of the busiest travel times of the year. The Senate on Wednesday held a hearing on the growing passenger complaints about the scans and a new, more invasive pat-down introduced by federal screeners in October.

TSA Director John Pistole told senators the technology is safe and is there to protect the public. To Tyner’s relief, Pistole also said it’s unlikely the TSA would follow through on a $10,000 fine a San Diego airport official threatened to impose on Tyner when he left the airport without completing the screening process.

He didn’t come to San Diego International Airport intending to take a stand, said Tyner, who is unflaggingly polite and well-spoken. He was on his way to South Dakota with his father-in-law and brother-in-law for a pheasant-hunting vacation. When he saw the body-scan machines, Tyner said, he turned on his cellphone in case there was a conflict. He refused the scan, and a TSA agent took him to another area and explained the pat-down procedure, triggering Tyner’s “don’t touch my junk” challenge.

After half an hour of haggling, the agent escorted him to the ticket counter, where he got his ticket refunded. As he headed back to his Oceanside home, his relatives continued on with their flight, he said. His father-in-law, who had urged him to just go ahead with the pat-down, was upset at first, Tyner said.

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But by the time he touched down in South Dakota he had changed his mind, Tyner said.

“He called me and said, ‘You know, I’m really proud you took a stand on something you believe in.’”

Tyner was raised in Orange County and attended a private Christian high school before enrolling as a computer science major at UC Riverside. He writes software for communications and networking equipment for a San Diego company, he said.

He and his wife, Suzanne, are parents of a 1-year-old son, Jack. Before Jack’s birth, Tyner competed in bicycle road races on weekends. Tyner is something of a political junkie, browsing dozens of articles from favorite websites such as the Libertarian Standard and Salon.com every day.

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He didn’t vote for Barack Obama or John McCain in the 2008 presidential election and thinks both parties are “terrible.”

“They’re both out to secure power for themselves,” he said. “I don’t think they’re really committed to the liberty that this country was founded on.”

And if that sounds like the standard “tea party” pitch, Tyner isn’t fond of that conservative movement either. “They’ve got some good ideas, but they’ve been in large part co-opted by the Republican Party.”

If anything, Tyner said, he believes in common sense. And it just doesn’t make sense to him to subject the entire flying public to invasive screening procedures when alternatives could do the job just as effectively.

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He mentions behavioral profiling, the process of interviewing passengers flagged for closer screening, as one way to catch potential terrorists. There are others, he said, but before he can explain, the phone is ringing again and another reporter is calling.

“Sorry,” he said. “Gotta go.”

catherine.saillant@latimes.com


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