Friday, January 21, 2011

The TSA Tea Party

Yet again, those in power have misread and underestimated the will of the American people. Last November’s election results shattered the grinning assurances of politicians who supposed voters were unserious in their objections to government over-reach in matters of economics, regulation and health. Now, in the face of mounting protest against the excesses of TSA officers at America’s airports, those responsible for the policy of continued sexual violation of travelers maintain that they are winning the argument. They are wrong, and they will lose.

One hesitates to equate the grassroots and growing opposition to TSA’s practices of perversion with the Tea Party movement that propelled GOP gains in the 2010 elections, since the latter largely represents a right-of-centre worldview, while the airport uproar encompasses people of all political and ideological persuasions.

This is fitting, as the current TSA situation is a bi-partisan disgrace – including the lucrative compensation received by Bush-era Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff for selling Rapiscan backscatter x-ray machines to his former department for use at airports, as well as the eagerness of Chertoff’s Democratic successor, Janet Napolitano, to implement and expand this disgusting program.

Indeed, at a recent Washington, DC, conference hosted by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (, which is suing to halt the use of full-body x-ray scans by the TSA, speakers represented every conceivable background and affiliation – Congressmen and staffers from both parties, lawyers, municipal officials, pilots, students, security experts, libertarians, liberals – even Ralph Nader, for good measure. Assessing the TSA’s enhanced screening techniques from all sides – efficacy, cost, safety, constitutionality and on – this group of people who had probably never found themselves in one room and on the same side (TSA officials declined invitations to attend) demolished any and all rationale for a technology that has been abandoned by other countries for its obscenity and ineffectiveness.

But despite the diversity of its participants, the populist nature of this protest feels familiar. Government officials chug along as though all will be well once folks settle down, even as opposition websites, Facebook groups and on-line networks boast memberships in the tens of thousands, and rising. Americans of all types are sharing their stories of mistreatment at the hands (and eyes) of TSA officers, and pooling ideas to bring this shameful episode to an end.

In response, government spokespeople continue to proffer the same assurances about privacy and necessity and the “next generation” of security tools, assuming Americans simply need time to adjust to the system. The most egregious such comment comes from Napolitano herself, in reference to the “enhanced pat-down” techniques that permit TSA officers to put their hands in travelers’ most intimate areas: “It’s something new. Most Americans are not used to a real law enforcement pat-down like that.”

This is true, since most Americans do not find themselves arrested or in jail. How could we claim to have a free country if innocent citizens were to become “used to a real law enforcement pat-down”? Unlike many, I do not consider Napolitano to be a scheming abettor of some sinister New World Order. Rather – and I sincerely do not mean to be glib – I assess her to be so cosmically stupid and barren of understanding as to the nature of this nation or her job that she simply does not recognize the absurdity of such a remark.

TSA Administrator John Pistole, on the other hand, appears to be a very different sort. In a recorded message, played in loops at American airports, authoritarian menace drips from his voice as he speaks of, “your options as a passenger” under his regime. He does not say as much, but your “options” are to be photographed nude, groped, or both, at the whim of a TSA worker, under threat of arrest and prosecution if you refuse to comply.

As columnist Chris Selley observed in a different context, there are some police officers who are incapable of dealing with a citizen who knows his rights. A 26-year FBI veteran before being tapped by President Obama for his TSA post, Pistole seems like such an officer.

Pistole’s recording concludes by thanking the flying public for its cooperation in the security effort as, “We all work together.” We are not working together, John. You and I are not on the same side. You want to violate and take naked pictures of my countrymen and loved ones; I want to prevent that. Neither your mission nor mine has the first thing to do with terrorism, but at least I admit it.

It bears mentioning that, even if done precisely as advertised, TSA’s system is still an abomination. A government agent is still seeing your naked image and/or physically violating you, without cause, explanation, escape or recourse. The dynamic between uniformed officials and citizens is appalling. I have routinely witnessed travelers at Washington, DC’s Reagan-National Airport crammed three or four at a time into a tiny glass cage, locked at one end and guarded by a uniformed officer at the other, and held there until TSA personnel are good and ready to release and grope them one by one.

Folks are finding the reality at airports is nothing like the anodyne assurances they have received from government officials and sympathetic media outlets. As the EPIC legal team noted in its January 6 brief, “Public opposition has correlated with the actual experience of those who undergo the TSA’s new screening procedure.”

A recent Zogby poll found that 61% of Americans oppose the TSA’s new methods, and this number has nowhere to go but up. As more and more Americans discover the depravity of TSA’s system for themselves, watching their children be photographed naked or their spouses touched in obscene ways by government agents, the only remaining supporters of this regime will be those who are empowered by and exempt from it, such as Napolitano and Obama, along with those pitiful stragglers whose public personae consist of being loudly wrong about almost everything (Gloria Allred, call your office).

As security expert Bruce Schneier stated at the EPIC conference, “Terrorism cannot end our way of life – only our response to it can.” In this way, the TSA has succeeded where al-Qaeda failed. Since 9/11, Americans have defied fear and embraced freedom, choosing to fly despite the remote danger of airline terrorism. Now they are demurring, as they are faced with the very real possibility that they or those they love will be violated by agents of their own government. This cannot be our way. As Schneier observes, “If we are indomitable, the terrorists lose, even if their attack succeeds.”

With that sentiment in mind, I have hope. This will end, because it has to end. In recent years, we have seen the American people, including many who had not previously raised their voices in the public square, come together to make a difference. Now, on this issue, we are doing so again. I am confident we will prevail.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.