Montgomery County's James Babb a leader of air-security protest

James Babb, who says he is "just a regular dad," has become a media darling - even though the Eagleville man has never himself undergone a full-body scan or a pat-down.
James Babb, who says he is "just a regular dad," has become a media darling - even though the Eagleville man has never himself undergone a full-body scan or a pat-down.
Posted: November 24, 2010

When James Babb first heard that X-ray scanners were coming to the Philadelphia airport, he was angered by the thought of just his two young daughters having to go through them.

Now, a website he created in response to that has unwittingly struck a nerve among thousands of travelers and thrust him onto the national stage as a leader of planned protests to refuse screening at 27 airports Wednesday.

No one is more surprised at the way this movement has taken off and put him in the spotlight than the Montgomery County resident himself.

"I'm just a regular dad," he said, although one quick to challenge governmental authority. "This exploded all over the Internet, and now look where we're at."

Since cofounding WeWontFly.com last month in response to full-body X-ray scanners, Babb, 42, has given voice to thousands of angry fliers who complain that the machines can peek under clothing, and that checkpoint pat-downs are demeaning and invasive.

Babb and his backers hope that travelers Wednesday will refuse the X-ray scanning and resist what they consider overly aggressive searches.

Transportation Security Administration officials have said such measures are crucial to ensure airline safety and have called Babb's tactics irresponsible. Airport officials worry that if even a handful of fliers join in the protest, it could gum up already long holiday-travel lines.

Babb, an advertising consultant who works from his home in Eagleville, has company in loudly protesting the enhanced TSA screenings. The movement has birthed a handful of instant Internet celebrities during the last month, such as John Tyner, a 31-year-old software engineer who gave a colorful warning - "Don't touch my junk" - to inspectors in San Diego and then posted it on YouTube in a video viewed by thousands.

But none has been as vocal or omnipresent as Babb.

In the last week, he has been a nightly presence on cable and local news programs and has been quoted in dozens of newspapers, railing against what he describes as the latest development in a pattern of government intrusion into the privacy of ordinary Americans.

While on camera, he can usually be counted on to drop a few salty lines - the type of inflammatory language that has made him a media darling.

"Whether they're reaching for your crotch or reaching for your cash, the government's invading your person on a daily basis," he's fond of saying in interviews.

His website - started with a friend and fellow activist now living in South America - has attracted more than 35,000 hits each day, with many readers leaving their own stories of frustration with airport security. The campaign has attracted more than 18,000 followers on social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

But it might surprise many of his supporters to learn that Babb has never encountered one of the new TSA pat-downs or been asked to walk through one of the X-ray scanners himself.

The thought of screeners looking at full-body images of his 8- and 10-year-old daughters was enough to set him off, he said. "That's so over the line," he said. "To think that they're going to put their hands on my kid or take nude photos of them."

But then, he never met an antigovernment protest he couldn't get behind. Like many of the causes he previously supported, his family figured this one was just another campaign that would garner little attention.

A Virginia native who moved to Philadelphia in the early '90s for a job with a rock band, he took an interest in politics and protest movements only in the last decade.

He has since joined demonstrators in urging the abolition of the Federal Reserve and spent time handing out fliers to jurors at the Philadelphia federal courthouse, advising them of their right to refuse cases based on laws they deem unconstitutional.

"When there's an angry mob around that's standing up for individual rights, I like to be involved if I can," he said. "I've never been a big fan of authority figures."

And much to the chagrin of his family, this isn't the first time he's tangled with the TSA. He has questioned screeners during past airport visits, he says, and sometimes his wife, Christina, wishes he'd just keep quiet.

"She sometimes tells me just to shut up and stop asking for search warrants," he said. "I have to explain to my daughter that they're taking our things because they are thugs."

When asked to explain the popularity of his latest call to arms, Babb is at a loss. After watching what he describes as the growing expansion of government into our personal lives, he can't explain what is it about air travel that has people drawing the line.

Kate Hanni, founder of FlyersRights.org, thinks she has an answer. She found herself in the middle of a similar media maelstrom in 2007 when as a California real estate broker she spoke out against hours-long tarmac wait times before being allowed to leave a plane.

She now heads the largest nonprofit airline-consumer association and is lobbying for passage of an Airline Passengers Bill of Rights.

"He took the stand that most of us wanted to take," she said. "They flying experience has been pretty miserable for years."


Contact staff writer Jeremy Roebuck at 610-313-8212 or jroebuck@phillynews.com.

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