It’s not exactly, “Give me liberty or give me death.” But somehow, “If you touch my junk, I’ll have you arrested” may be a fitting candidate for a 21st century analog to Patrick Henry’s cry.
John Tyner – the man who uttered these words — has become the most recent recruit to the growing “Why is TSA doing these things to us?” army of apparently regular people.
If you have not read about his Saturday morning encounter with TSA at the San Diego International Airport, or watched the now viral youtube video of the episode, you can learn about it here: http://johnnyedge.blogspot.com/2010/11/these-events-took-place-roughly-between.html
Every time there is one of these episodes – and they’ve increased since the implementation of the new “enhanced patdown procedures” [note to marketing: lose the “enhanced” modifier. The reminder of “enhanced interrogation” is too creepy.]
Restart – Every time there is one of these episodes, it is always interesting to read the comments section of the web article or blog post. Almost without exception the comments fall into one of two categories:
1. Dear sir/madam: You are a jerk. No one is above the law. Rules are rules. I want to fly in safety. The procedures are for our safety. If you don’t want to follow the rules, don’t fly.
2. Dear sir/madam: You are a hero. The rules are stupid. They violate the 4th amendment. They have nothing to do with security. What a waste of money. TSA has not caught one terrorist. This is how the Nazis got people to behave. If people don’t want to put liberty ahead of a false security, they shouldn’t fly.
Osama and his buddies must be in whatever passes for hysterics in his gang over our inability to get out of the trap he set: everyone has to prove they are not a terrorist before they can fly.
Months ago, Dee Walker wrote in this blog about her archetypal difficulties with TSA. In one of her posts, she noted that the “patdowns” she experienced were cursory at best, and clearly ineffective.
I wondered what she thought about the new enhanced procedures.
Here’s what she wrote. (She wrote this before the Tyner incident)
Passengers: targets or threats?
The very same week that the TSA announces a change in its check point pat-down protocols, a terrorist in Yemen with a known proclivity for making bombs reminds us, yet again, that passengers are more likely targets than threats.
To re-cap, last month, TSA promised an impending “change” in the process screeners use to engage passengers who request a pat-down in lieu of passing through the great privacy compromiser, AKA full-body imaging devices. At the time of the announcement, TSA spokesperson declined further comment, a strategic lapse, no doubt, intended to generate buzz and chatter. The next day, we learned that pat-downs would become more invasive to travelers who request them.
I have previously noted that the pat-downs engaged by TSA screeners are neither thorough, nor are they effective. Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent experiences at BWI and Providence airports indicate this is still the case, but he also all but confirms that the TSA seeks to embarrass and intimidate passengers into compliance with the body-scanner process.
Since I have complained repeatedly about the nature and lack of accountability inherent in random selections for additional screening, you would think that I would be happy with a process like full body-imaging, that consistently impacts all travelers. I am anything but happy. In fact, I am outraged and it would appear I have much good company.
The touch that humiliates
The new search protocol, according to Goldberg, requires screeners “utilize a sliding motion” to more thoroughly check the crotch area of travelers; not, apparently, for the purpose of finding weapons, but with the main intent of getting travelers “into the machines.” In other words, it increase the likelihood of individualized, public humiliation in order to gain mass compliance.
If this news does not disturb you, I am not surprised. If this news disturbs you, then you have only yourself to blame.
We brave Americans are nothing but little sheep when it comes to air travel, me included. We continue to think that if we cooperate, if we put our heads down while we raise our arms as directed, we will be safe. Al Qaeda keeps trying to tell us how wrong we are, but we are not listening to them, again. We are too busy listening to TSA screeners yell at us to remove our shoes and laptops. Our liquids and gels are seized as we pass en route to our overcrowded seats, positioned both invisibly and mere feet above tons of unscreened and unsafe cargo.
In the most recent event, cargo that was suspected of containing a bomb, had been searched and cleared. Agents had to be told specifically to look for computer printers before finding what ended up being a bomb that was strong enough to bring down the cargo plane in which it was being transported. But TSA wants to more thoroughly search our crotches?
I continue to wonder when, as travelers, we will rise in protest of procedures that continue to compromise not just our privacy, but our safety as well. We routinely and very passively submit to a seriously flawed screening process, that has one purpose: Efficiency.
On time departures vs. air travel safety
Think about it for just a moment and reflect upon your own experiences. On the whole, we get really mad when our planes are late, but we are not silent about this unforgivable sin. Far from it. We complain to our friends and on travel websites about missed meetings. When we miss connecting flights we demand to be compensated, per federal law. We loudly demand free hotel rooms when blizzards hit as predicted days in advance. We want Congress to pass a bill of rights for air passengers that reduce our collective risk of sitting on a tarmac. Meanwhile, important legislation regarding screening rates for cargo has been largely ignored, and this failure has been met with the most reliable characteristic of US travelers when it comes to safety: silence.
As consumers and travelers, we are solely to blame for the current, porous state of air travel safety. We have allowed TSA to engage a screening process that focuses its sights on us, and we have quietly acquiesced, all in the hopes that we arrive at our destinations on-time and under-budget. We, the travelers, have failed to insist upon a more holistic screening process that does not separate passengers from the rest of the plane, its contents, its location, its destination and passenger roster. In essence, passenger screening is the low-hanging fruit of air travel safety.
Had the al Qaeda bomb attacks launched a few weeks ago been successful, would we now have the courage to ask about the effectiveness of traveler screening? I suspect not. In fact, I fear the opposite would be likely. Passenger screening would be lauded as successful, which, it would be argued, forced al Qaeda to attack asymmetrically using the cargo.
We would then (and very likely will yet), engage in some knee-jerk response designed to heighten perceptions of safety while not unduly compromising the efficiency of moving cargo, because that costs money, and those costs will be passed onto us, the passengers. More safe cargo means more expensive tickets. We tend to be pretty vocal about how much we don’t want that.
Revamp the entire air travel system
Sadly, no amount of silence will make us safe. Remember, the printer cartridge plots were not foiled by screening or by searching. They were foiled by intelligence. The computer bombs were interdicted by hard work on the ground in Yemen and quick work facilitated by meaningful communication among agents of cooperating nations. Can we not reasonably expect some of these characteristics to transfer to more effective passenger screening methodologies?
Passenger screening as currently practiced is a complete waste of time if there are bombs in the cargo hold. Screening and searching cargo cannot currently be accomplished in a meaningful and cost-effective manner. A more holistic approach to air travel safety is needed to isolate threats, whether those threats be borne by passengers or cargo. The more time and resources we waste kidding ourselves that what we are doing is working is more time and money wasted. Al Qaeda has demonstrated consistent focus on its goals, and it is only a matter of time before some bloody success is again realized. That success might be on board a plane that is in the sky today.
Are US travelers, as a group, as capable as al Qaeda? What if, on one given day, every single traveler passing through US airports refused to enter the body-scanner as a means of protest to the current state of our system? Would our leaders then understand that we are serious about demanding a revamped air travel safety system?
Are we serious or are we kidding ourselves, still?
How to break the chain of intimidation
Over the course of the past two years, I have been selected for secondary screening roughly forty percent of the time I fly. I am always polite, but, for many reasons, I never cooperate with secondary screening requests. Almost predictably, given my experience, I got “randomly” selected for additional screening, yet again, a few days ago. This time, I was passing through Tampa International Airport.
After informing the screener that I would not enter the body scanner, she pointedly informed me that TSA had recently implemented new pat-down standards that would include a search of the “crotch area”. I had to wait five minutes to be searched, and then immediately engaged a second screener regarding these “new” techniques. I asked this screener how much training each member of TSA received on execution of the new pat-down techniques. She asked me why I wanted to know and said she was just trying to do a pat-down (as in, please don’t ask me anything, I am just trying to do my job here). I told her that I was a police officer (I did not indicate I was retired) and was very interested in the level and intensity of training on the new pat-down standards.
She looked a little unsure of herself and told me she had received “a day” of training. I asked her if TSA would verify for me that each trainer received a full day of training on the new techniques. She then stated that the amount of training varied by airport and by class size. I then asked her how many people had been in her class and she told me that if I had questions, I could ask the supervisors after she completed her search. I looked her dead in the eyes and asked why she would not answer a very simple question, and once I promised it would be my last question, she told me that five people had been in her class.
Generally, the pat-down did not feel any different from the last half dozen pat-downs I have experienced, and it was equally ineffective as a pat-down. I suspect that the goal was not to interdict weapons or contraband, but to elevate the level of embarrassment felt by those of us who refuse to enter the body scanner. Yet again, that had no effect upon me. What felt markedly different this trip was how very forcefully informed I was by the first screener, and how utterly intimidated the second screener appeared by my inquiries, coupled with her apparent willingness to offer less than accurate information.
I keep getting back to wondering how we let this happen. TSA is an agency out of control, and likely the greatest single sources of stress for travelers today. Further, screener hostility toward inquiries like mine further exacerbates my frustration and my concern for our freedom. I have read the signs that tell me to engage the screeners, but when I do, I am met with suspicion, if not by overt hostility. We, the people, have instilled great discretion in TSA, and yet there seems to be absolutely no desire by us to achieve accountability for the type of decisions that are made. Why am I so routinely selected for additional “random” screening? Why is one screener permitted to completely ignore my inquiries, when other screeners provide answers? Why are screeners allowed to provide incorrect information? Why have my inquiries generated an interview from behavioral detection experts, directed there to ascertain what my “problem is”?
Democracy requires information in order to work, and one of the best ways to get information is to ask questions. Should screeners be allowed to provide inaccurate information? Should screeners be permitted to refuse to provide me information on processes that are not classified as secret? Should the mere act of me asking for information be punishable by additional screening? My experience indicates, sadly yes, across the board.
I do not seek out the attention that TSA showers upon me, but when they are so kind to make me the star of their show, I think I deserve answers to reasonable questions, just as I deserve to be told why a particular question is not reasonable. The mere act of inquiring should not generate retaliatory actions, like those I experienced in Memphis.
Traveler todo list
I have created a list of to-do’s for travelers who, like me, are fed up with the inconsistency and lack of accountability demonstrated by TSA. I have attempted to ensure that the guidance I provide is consistent with the guidance that TSA provides. My suggestions offer you the opportunity to gain some level of accountability:
Engage Your Screener: If you are selected for additional screening, or a level of screening that is clearly different from the majority of travelers around you, immediately ask why you were selected. TSA Screeners will try to rush or herd you into the body scanner if you are not careful. You must immediately state that you will not enter the scanner. You will be told about the new and more thorough pat down techniques that are being used and will again be offered the “choice” of going through the body scanner or the pat down, Again, affirmatively state that you will not enter the body scanner. Then prepare for all eyes to be upon you as the screener states loudly into their radio “We have a refusal”. Do not be worried and do not allow yourself to be cajoled. This is just another link in the chain of intimidation.
After you are told yours was a ‘random’ selection, try to note who is “randomly” selected immediately after you. If it is a person of the same race or gender as you are, ask the screener whether those characteristics were relevant to your selection. Also note the name of the person who is providing information to you. I strongly encourage you to be polite, and to address the person by their name, as in “Okay, Ms. Jones, I am waiting right here until you tell me where to go.” Or, Yes, Mr. Smith, I will remove everything from my pockets”. Being rude just makes a bad situation worse, and frankly it is not the screeners fault that they are asked to do stupid things. Being rude will also reduce the likelihood that your questions will be answered. Sometimes, just asking the questions can generate additional attention, and may get you an interview with a behavioral detection officer (BDO).
As you are shuttled to the side or down the middle, you may be asked whether you want to be screened in private. I was not given that option in Tampa, which is fine because I strongly urge you to decline private screening. The more eyes on what is happening to you, the better for you. I believe most screeners are highly uncomfortable with the new pat-down procedures and likely resent people like me, who refuse to enter the scanner. They are far less likely to try to retaliate against you with other people watching.
Do not be afraid to ask to speak to a supervisor. If reasonable questions are not answered, you should seek answers from the people in the booth. Take down names, especially when employees of TSA refuse to answer your questions. Try to also remember to ask why your questions are not being answered. Be prepared for a general lack of cooperation and remember that TSA wants to get you into and out of the security experience quickly. The quality of your interaction is far less important.
Finally, follow up. Make friends, family and acquaintances aware of your experiences and contact TSA. In his book, Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000 Pete Blackshaw reminds us that in today’s world, the customer is king and queen.
It is time for each of us to remind TSA of that very same thing.