The TSA Debacle

Treating Americans like suspected terrorists doesn’t make anybody safer.
TSA Agents
 (U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Public Domain)

Last week, I wrote about John Tyner, who became something of a folk hero when he told a TSA screener that if the screener touched his ​“junk” while performing one of the TSA’s ​“invasive” pat-downs, he’d have him arrested. A number of stories have since emerged of passengers being subjected to embarrassment and indignation by TSA pat-downs.

One TSA search left a man, who has to wear special equipment as a result of surviving bladder cancer, covered in his own urine:

[Thomas D.] Sawyer is a bladder cancer survivor who now wears a urostomy bag, which collects his urine from a stoma, or opening in his abdomen. ​“I have to wear special clothes and in order to mount the bag I have to seal a wafer to my stomach and then attach the bag. If the seal is broken, urine can leak all over my body and clothes.”

[…]

Before starting the enhanced pat-down procedure, a security officer did tell him what they were going to do and how they were going to it, but Sawyer said it wasn’t until they asked him to remove his sweatshirt and saw his urostomy bag that they asked any questions about his medical condition.

​“One agent watched as the other used his flat hand to go slowly down my chest. I tried to warn him that he would hit the bag and break the seal on my bag, but he ignored me. Sure enough, the seal was broken and urine started dribbling down my shirt and my leg and into my pants.”

Another cancer survivor had to remove her prosthetic breast during a pat-down:

In early August she was walking through security when she says she was asked to go through the new full body-scanners at Concourse ​“D” at Charlotte Douglas International.

[…]

She says two female Charlotte T.S.A. agents took her to a private room and began what she calls an aggressive pat down. She says they stopped when they got around to feeling her right breast… the one where she’d had surgery.

​“She put her full hand on my breast and said, ​‘What is this?’. And I said, ​‘It’s my prosthesis because I’ve had breast cancer.’ And she said, ​‘Well, you’ll need to show me that’.“

Bossi was asked to show her prosthetic breast, sticking her hand down her own shirt and removing the prosthesis from her bra.

And finally, an ABC News employee experienced a TSA screener feeling around inside her pants:

An ABC News employee said she was subject to a ​“demeaning” search at Newark Liberty International Airport Sunday morning.

​“The woman who checked me reached her hands inside my underwear and felt her way around,” she said. ​“It was basically worse than going to the gynecologist. It was embarrassing. It was demeaning. It was inappropriate.”

These are all terrible events to be sure, and not even the most disturbing ones that have been reported. However, the one that really got to me personally was the viral YouTube video of a young, shirtless boy getting a pat-down. As I watched the video, the thought of my sons having to go through a similar experience just made me sick — and this is one of the tamer child-related incidents I’ve read about. (Other stories are circulating of children getting their genitals touched during a TSA search.) For starters, how does a pat-down, and especially an ​“invasive” pat-down, not send mixed signals to children about strangers not being allowed to touch them? All I can say is that I’m glad our family doesn’t have any plans to fly anytime soon.

Some contend that protesting and criticizing the TSA procedures is nothing more than whining and complaining. It’s evidence that Americans are ​“spoiled, fickle, snotty-nosed complainers, all too eager to wallow in what’s bad and difficult and inconvenient in life.” I read statements like these, some written by people whom I respect, and I find some truth in them. Do Americans complain a lot, have little to no perspective when it comes to what real suffering is, and often forget how blessed and fortunate we are compared to so many in the world? In a word, yes.

And yet, what is happening in airports around the nation is moving so far beyond the pale that describing it as ​“inconvenient” seems callous, insensitive, and maybe even insulting. Indeed, that does a disservice to everyone, and especially to those who have been humiliated and traumatized by policies supposedly enacted for our safety and security, but that really end up exposing our government’s ineptitude and fear — policies that, furthermore, could turn out to be utterly useless.

Fortunately, there is something of a silver lining to this whole mess: TSA screeners dislike the controversial pat-downs as much as passengers do, if not moreso.

A few days ago I contacted 20 TSA Transportation Security Officers (TSO) to ask their opinions of the new ​“enhanced” pat downs. Of the 20 I reached out to, 17 responded. All 17 who responded are at airports where the new ​“enhanced” pat down is in place … and the responses were all the same, that front line TSOs do not like the new pat downs and that they do not want to perform them. I expected most to not like the pat downs … but what I didn’t expect was that all 17 mentioned their morale being broken down.

Each of the 17 TSA TSOs that responded to me detailed their personal discomfort in conducting the new pat downs, with more than one stating that it is likely they are more uncomfortable performing the pat down than passengers are receiving them.

A few of the sample TSA screener comments include:

Molester, pervert, disgusting, an embarrassment, creep. These are all words I have heard today at work describing me, said in my presence as I patted passengers down. These comments are painful and demoralizing, one day is bad enough, but I have to come back tomorrow, the next day and the day after that to keep hearing these comments. If something doesn’t change in the next two weeks I don’t know how much longer I can withstand this taunting. I go home and I cry. I am serving my country, I should not have to go home and cry after a day of honorably serving my country.”

​“I come to work to do my job. It is not up to me to decide policy, it is up to me to carry out my duties as dictated by the Transportation Security Administration. When a person stands in front of me and calls me a pervert or accuses me of molesting them it is disheartening. People fail to understand that neither of us are happy about the intrusive pat down I am carrying out. I am polite, I am professional and while someone may not like what I have to carry out, they came to me because they choose not to utilize the alternative and less invasive method of security at my airport.”

In all fairness, I have some sympathy for TSA screeners. Statistically speaking, I suppose there could be a few perverts out there who enjoy giving ​“invasive” pat-downs. But I think it’s safe to say that most TSA screeners don’t wake up in the morning and look forward to spending a day feeling up strangers. Ultimately, this a gross failure of the TSA to enact policies and procedures that sufficiently address both safety and privacy concerns. These pat-downs, as well as the so-called ​“naked” scanners, are tantamount to the ​“security theater” that Jeffrey Goldberg wrote about back in 2008.

One hopes that between growing passenger unrest and the dissatisfaction within TSA ranks, that our leaders will come to their senses and realize that throwing common sense out of the window and treating Americans like suspected terrorists doesn’t make anybody safer. Rather, it places undue strain and stress on everyone, weakening our sense of trust and loyalty and giving those that we’re supposed to be fighting some semblance of victory.

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