I have passed from the “rage” stage to the “education” stage when it comes to dealing with Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents at U.S. airports. I used to get so worked up over their rudeness, their lack of common courtesy, and their profound lack of common sense exercised under the guise of public safety. Lately, I have tried something different: I ask questions and attempt to engage the agents.
During my Honolulu trip a couple weeks ago, I could not find the intra-island checkpoint that Friendly Skies suggested to avoid an encounter with a full body scanner, so I ended up in a deserted security checkpoint near the Delta check-in desks. There were about four agents standing around talking and only one other passenger going through the security checkpoint. A TSO was standing near the metal detector with his arms crossed and directed me into the full body scanner, what we call a nude-o-scope on Live and Let’s Fly.
Of course I asked for an opt out, but rather than standing by silently I decided to engage the TSO who would perform the pat-down. A stocky guy with a thick Boston accent waddled over and put his gloves on. He was nice enough and impressed that I picked up a Boston accent all the way in Honolulu (trust me, it was not hard…). As he began his search, I started interrogating him.
ME: Do you know why I did not go through the AIT machine over there?
TSO: Sir, I can assure you the amount of radiation you receive is nothing compared to…
ME: No, no–it has nothing to do with health reasons. I get much more radiation from my cell phone. I have a constitutional problem with these machines.
TSO: A what problem?
ME: Constitutional. I believe these machines–that perform a virtual strip search without probable cause–violate my 4th Amendment rights. That is why I refuse to go through them.
TSO: Are you a lawyer or something?
TSO: Oh, but you realize this is for safety right?
ME: When liberty and security collide, a balance must be drawn, but I think the balance tips far too much in the direction of security.
TSO: Let’s not forget about 9/11.
ME: Let’s not forget about our constitution or use 9/11 as an instrument of fear to coerce public support.
TSO: We can’t even see the naked images anymore–look [pointing to the cartoonish images now displayed]. Do you know how this works?
ME: I do and it is a step in the right direction, but that is a skin put over the real image–don’t you think that if someone was caught smuggling something in, the picture would be needed for evidence? Do you really these pictures are not saved?
Let me ask you this. I was flying through your hometown recently and they asked me to state my name while examining my boarding pass and my photo ID. What is the point of that?
TSO: Well, terrorists might have fake IDs.
ME: Ok, but what does it really matter? First, are terrorists smart enough to conceal sufficient weaponry to blow up an airplane but too dumb to know the name on their own ID? Second, does it really matter what my name is? If you are effectively screening me, why are ID checks even necessary?
TSO: We use multi-layers of security to keep you safe.
ME: Did you read about the story in Dallas where a woman–a government agent testing these full body scanners–slipped a handgun in her bra and made it through the full body scanner undetected five times? These machines were rolled out with no operational testing…
TSO: Really? I find that hard to believe. Was it a plastic gun?
ME: Google the story when you get home. This wasn’t a joke. You remember those puffer machines?
ME: And why don’t we have them anymore?
TSO: They didn’t work.
ME: And yet we spent millions of taxpayer dollars on them without testing them–your tax dollars and mine. Are you not outraged?
TSO: But these machines are different.
ME: Really? I would google that story I told you about. Five times–at DFW. No joke.
[I began gathering my belongings–my flight was already boarding]
TSO: It was nice to talk to you sir. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me.
ME: And I appreciate that you are doing your best in the job you have. Just realize that a critical look at your organization suggests most of what we must endure at airport security checkpoints is pure theatre.
TSO: You make a fair point.
* * *
I doubt I changed his mind about the organization he works for, but I bet he will not quickly forget our conversation. With both Republican and Democratic leadership (with some very notable exceptions like Ron and Rand Paul, Darrell Issa, and John Mica) continuing to play the fear card and prop up the TSA, change may have to come from the inside. If we all take an extra moment to get the TSA to question themselves, we stand at least a small chance of having a better screening experience, even if it just means a better attitude. That’s worth five minutes of my time.