If you traveled by air last week for the Thanksgiving holiday, you undoubtedly witnessed Transportation Security Administration agents conducting aggressive searches of some passengers. A new TSA policy begun in September calls for invasive and humiliating searches of random passengers; in some instances crude pat-downs have taken place in full public view. Some female travelers quite understandably have burst into tears upon being groped, and one can only imagine the lawsuits if TSA were a private company. But TSA is not private, TSA is a federal agency and therefore totally unaccountable to the American people.
TSA was created in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Although the National Guard, DOD, FBI, CIA, NSA, and FAA utterly failed to protect American citizens on that tragic day, federal legislators immediately proposed creating yet another government agency. But the commercial flying community did not want airport security federalized, and my office was inundated with messages from airline pilots opposing the creation of TSA. One pilot stated, "I don’t want the same people who bring me the IRS and ATF to be in charge of airport security." But Congress didn’t listen to the men and women who spend their working lives flying, so it created another agency that costs billions of dollars, employs thousands of unionized federal workers, and produces poor results.
Problems within TSA are legion. In the rush to hire a new workforce, 28,000 screeners were put to work without background checks. Some of them were convicted felons. Many were very young, uneducated, with little job experience. At Kennedy and LaGuardia airports in New York, police arrested dozens of TSA employees who were simply stealing valuables from the luggage they were assigned to inspect. Of course, TSA has banned locks on checked luggage, leaving passengers with checked bags totally at the mercy of screeners working behind closed doors. None of this is surprising for a government agency of any size, but we must understand the reality of TSA: its employees have no special training, wisdom, intelligence, or experience whatsoever that qualifies them to have any authority over you. They certainly have no better idea than you do how to prevent terrorism. TSA is about new bureaucratic turf and lucrative union make-work, not terrorism.
TSA has created an atmosphere of fear and meek subservience in our airports that smacks of Soviet bureaucratic bullying. TSA policies are subject to change at any moment, they differ from airport to airport, and they need not be in writing. One former member of Congress demanded to see the written regulation authorizing a search of her person. TSA flatly told her, "We don’t have to show it to anyone." Think you have a right to know the laws and regulations you are expected to obey? Too bad. Get in line and stay quiet, or we’ll make life very hard for you. This is the attitude of TSA personnel.
Passengers, of course, have caught on quickly. They have learned to stay quiet and not ask any questions, no matter how ludicrous or undignified the command. It’s bad enough to see ordinary Americans bossed around in their stocking feet by newly-minted TSA agents, but it’s downright disgraceful to see older Americans and children treated so imperiously. But any objection, however rational and reasonable, risks immediate scrutiny. At best, complainers will be taken aside and might miss their flight. If they don’t submit quickly and attempt to assert any rights, they will end up detained, put on a TSA list that guarantees them hostile treatment at every airport, and possibly arrested or fined for their "attitude."
Airlines should be using every last ounce of their lobbying and public relations power to stop TSA from harassing, delaying, humiliating, and otherwise mistreating their paying passengers. They should be protecting their employees, passengers, and aircraft using private security and guns in the cockpit. After all, who has more incentive to create safe skies than the airlines themselves? Many security-intensive industries, including nuclear power plants, oil refineries, and armored money transports, employ private security forces with excellent results. Yet the airlines prefer to relinquish all responsibility for security to the government, so they cannot be held accountable if another disaster occurs. But airlines are finding out the hard way that millions of Americans simply won’t put up with TSA’s abuse. Wealthy Americans are using private planes via increasingly popular fractional ownership plans, while ordinary Americans are choosing to drive to their destinations and vacation closer to home. Even business travelers are finding ways to consolidate trips and teleconference. Who can blame anyone for avoiding airports altogether?
While millions of Americans undoubtedly welcome any TSA indignity under the guise of "preventing terrorism," millions more are not willing to give blind obedience to arbitrary authority. TSA creates only a false sense of security, at great cost not only financially but also in terms of our dignity. How we as Americans react to authoritarian agencies like TSA is an indicator of how much we still value freedom over our persons and effects.