WASHINGTON, June 4, 2012 — Florida Rep. John Mica, one of the founders of the TSA, is also one of its harshest critics. I go through their screening every week and I’m right there with him.
The whole system is invasive and time-consuming to start with. Because I travel so much, I have airline status and at least get to the first checkpoint more quickly. Last week’s experience is typical. The agent checking our papers looked at my retired military ID and said, “Thank you for your service.” I appreciate that; it is especially fitting right after Memorial Day.
But that appreciation doesn’t keep the TSA from treating me like a suspect because I had the temerity to buy an airline ticket. I guess I picked the wrong line because I was forced through the strip-search scanner. There was an attractive young woman in line a bit ahead of me. She got scanned twice. The older couple right in front of me went through pretty quickly.
When it was my turn I picked the Chapstick out of my front pocket and held it in my hand along with the boarding pass. Ordinary people call it Chapstick; the TSA calls it an “anomaly.” I’ve been hassled about it before.
Apparently that wasn’t good enough for the scanner nazis. I had left my cotton handkerchief in my back pocket. Oh, the horror! I was asked to remove it and the agent patted down my back pocket. Then he swabbed both my hands for “residue.” I hadn’t actually used the handkerchief but at that point I wished I had.
Surprise! The sample tested negative. While we were waiting for the result, the agent almost apologetically said that they tried to warn everyone to take everything out of their pockets. The clear implication was that had I followed directions properly, this delay wouldn’t have happened.
He was quite mistaken. I make my living, in part, by separating cause and effect. The cause of the delay was not that I had a handkerchief in my pocket, but rather the ridiculous notion that it is cause to consider me a threat worthy of further investigation.
Or perhaps it was the fact that I wasn’t compliant enough to remove it on my own. Bureaucrats—and especially those in security positions—like to show you who’s in charge and that resistance is futile. Honestly, this agent wasn’t a bad guy, but he was following his instructions to the letter. You know: the kind of instructions that classify peanut butter as a forbidden liquid or an almost-empty toothpaste tube too big to carry through because the label says it was originally 7 oz. To work for the TSA, you have to check your brain at the door.
Just following instructions. That was the defense of the Nazi concentration camp guards. It didn’t work at Nuremberg and it doesn’t work today, even though the TSA’s flouting of our civil liberties does not begin to compare in scope to the death camps. But one could argue that the scale of the TSA is even greater, with millions of people being inspected right down to their Chapstick and handkerchiefs every day.
Is that too harsh a judgment? What the TSA is doing is legal, right? What the SS did to the Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, mentally ill and other enemies of the state was also legal. One might object that searching the innocent does not compare to killing them. After all, what happened in Nazi Germany could never happen here.
Except that it could. The “it could never happen here” line of thinking was common in post-World War II America. The belief was that Germans were culturally a subservient people who were more likely to blindly follow authority than Americans. The Milgram experiment proved otherwise: In any population, about two-thirds of the people will do whatever they’re told by authority.
Are we Americans compliant? Yes we are. Every time I go through security I see men proactively removing their belts and women their jewelry. I never take my handkerchief or my plastic comb out of my pocket. I don’t take my belt off either, unless forced to. It is a small protest but the process forces us into a rational calculation: How badly do we want to get on that airplane? How much humiliation are we willing to put up with to do our jobs or go on vacation? What is the limit?
The Canada Free Press reports that the upper echelons of the Department of Homeland Security are openly contemptuous of Americans for putting up with the TSA. Yet there is resistance, albeit scattered. Many people I talk to either travel less or go by car when practical. Calls to Congress and continued complaints have resulted in a few adjustments to rules. If they will detain U.S. Senator Rand Paul, they will detain anyone. A Congressman I know says he gets unwanted extra attention if the TSA knows who he is.
Yet the false sense of security obtained by searching old ladies and little kids, by treating veterans like suspects is not worth the loss of civil liberties. Perhaps Rep. Mica will be successful in privatizing the TSA, but even though that moves in the right direction, it doesn’t go far enough.
It is time to restore common sense and civil liberties to airline travel.
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