Touching Sensitive Areas

OK, so I’ve been wallowing in my own bile about this for a couple of days here at the house. I’ve written this piece in my head a couple dozen times already. I tried to go the erudite way, mimicking William F. Buckley. I tried to go the sarcastic way, mimicking P.J. O’Rourke. I even thought about being as crude as possible, in hopes of making my point simply and clearly. And, in a way, that’s where I’m going with this. So let me say this, as simply as possible, and in bold text so you just can’t miss the point:

Nowhere in the United States Constitution will you find words “except in airports”. Just because someone buys a plane ticket, that doesn’t give the United States government the right to strip search them electronically or put their hands in inappropriate places.

Airport security has always been a joke, but that joke isn’t fucking funny anymore. Sure, it was kind of amusing when TSA banned lighters but not matches, or pocket knives but not knitting needles. It was funny when a TSA agent made the parents of a small child empty a plastic doll that had a liquid reservoir inside (so the doll could “pee”) because it might or might not have held more than 3 ounces of fluid. It was even funny when Adam Savage of Mythbusters had a TSA agent totally miss two 12″ razor blades he’d accidentally left in his bag:

But there’s nothing funny about what’s going on today. TSA’s agents and policies have always been arbitrary and capricious. What’s accepted at one airport is not accepted at another, and agents even sometimes argue amongst themselves about what’s acceptable or not. And God help the weary traveler who should get the TSA agent in a foul mood that day, lest that rent-a-cop with a badge decide to take his anger out on someone who doesn’t take their shoes off fast enough or walk though the metal detector right on cue. Just don’t cause too much trouble for the TSA agent citizen, or you might find yourself on a list. Or maybe you’ll get lucky and get the TSA agent in a “joking mood” who plants a white powder on you, pretends it’s drugs and threatens you with arrest. They’re a laugh a minute those TSA agents, especially when they use the cover of a fake childrens’ book – My First Cavity Search – as the wallpaper of their computers or when Philadelphia TSA agents give the “extra special search” to a woman in a Dallas Cowboys jersey:

But what’s worse, the laws surrounding air travel have been kept unconstitutionally secretive. Sure, the TSA happily and publicly posts lists of whatever items are banned on planes this week… but have you ever wondered what law(s) give the TSA the right to ban such items in the first place? Or ask for your identification? Or what questions a TSA agent might ask that you are legally required to answer?

Yeah, good luck with that. They’re called “secret directives” and the TSA is under no obligation to let you read them. And that’s when they’re actually written down; many of their secret directives – laws that you and I are supposed to obey – are, unbelievably, transmitted orally. So someone at TSA could pick up a phone and say “no black people on planes”, and that’s that. There’s no printed record of this, anywhere.

Speaking of, how about the case of Steve Bierfeldt, the founder of Campaign for Liberty, a libertarian group. He was traveling through St. Louis with around $4,700 in donations from the sale of t-shirts and books at a Campaign for Liberty conference. TSA took an interest in the lockbox and demanded to know what the money was for. Because the TSA’s alleged purview is airline safety, and since white males in business suits with $5,000 in cash aren’t really a threat to the operation of an aircraft, Steve (rightly) asked the TSA agent if he was legally required to answer their questions. TSA agents hassled him for a good thirty minutes. But they didn’t know that Steve’s iPhone was recording the entire conversation:

Even if they are written down, we, the American people, would not be allowed to read it anyway. So how are we supposed to obey or protest against laws we can’t even read? Ask Joao Correa of Concord, Ohio. He spent two nights in jail because of a TSA directive that says that passengers on domestic flights can only use the bathrooms in their section of the plane. Correa, a coach passenger, had the nerve to try to use the toilet in business class. He was arrested for assault after he grabbed the arm of a flight attendant trying to shoo him back to his own section. But, of course, that directive was a TSA secret, so Correa had no idea he was breaking the law. Or ask John Gilmore, an early employee of Sun Microsystems and a founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. When Gilmore sued the Bush administration over the ID requirement for flying on a commercial aircraft, government lawyers refused to admit to the judges of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals whether such a requirement exists.

One of the judges, Richard Paez, said that Gilmore was “always free to leave” if he didn’t want to show his ID. That same court would later rule that:

“Requiring that a potential passenger be allowed to revoke consent to an ongoing airport security search makes little sense in a post 9/11 world. Such a rule would afford terrorists multiple opportunities to attempt to penetrate airport security by ‘electing not to fly’ on the cusp of detection until a vulnerable portal is found.”

This is the ruling that will (allegedly) allow the TSA to sue Internet superstar John Tyner (he of the “touch my junk and I’ll have you arrested” fame) for refusing any search then trying to leave the airport. So… if an American citizen refuses a body scan and a pat down and peaceably chooses to leave the airport he can now be fined in civil court? I’m sure Hitler, Stalin and Mao are loving the irony.

And what about those full body scanners? The ones that might cause cancer in certain people? The ones the TSA refuses to label as x-ray machines and through which breast cancer survivors walk through unaware, even though they’ve been told to never have an x-ray unless it’s a life-threatening decision? The ones the government swears cannot save images of the public… oh wait.

Well, even if the TSA could save the images, who would want a picture like this anyway:

scanner_before

After all, you would need an entire team of IT geniuses running a “Pentium II class or higher” supercomputer using a super-secret operating system called “Microsoft Windows 98 or later” to download a highly illegal “hacker tool” like IrfanView or Paint.NET. This team, firmly ensconced in their James Bond-style hideout, would need upwards of 30 fucking seconds to load one of the scanner images into IrfanView and click Image > Negative to see anything interesting, right?

scanner_after

Oh.

Well, I’m sure Megan Fox and Angelina Jolie would still be happy to go through one of those machines, right? After all, there’s no way a bored, overpaid dick with a badge TSA agent would sell something like that to a tabloid, would they? After all, these are the same people who snickered as a woman was forced to remove her nipple rings with pliers, an extremely painful process, and humiliating in public. Almost as humiliating as the TSA agent who pulled a 71 year-old man’s pants down, in public, after his artificial knee set off the metal detector:

And how about the heroes of the sky, the pilots who fly the planes?  Even though most of them spent years in the military and all of them have been through FBI background checks, the TSA insists that they must be scanned too. Why does a pilot need to be scanned anyway? A pilot doesn’t a gun or knife to commit an act of terrorism… he’s about to be put in charge of 900,000 pound airplane filled with highly flammable fuel!

Well, they’re not happy with the scanning, either. On November 8, the U.S. Airline Pilots Association (which represents the 5,200 US Air pilots) and the Allied Pilots Association (which represents 11,500 American Airlines pilots) urged their members to “avoid security screening by the full body scanners being deployed at airports across the country”. Some scientists say that not enough is known about the health risks of the new scanners, which especially worries pilots, since they’d be scanned several times a week. Even “Sully” Sullenberger – an American fucking hero if ever there was one – says the scans are a waste of time and resources. And if “Sully” Sullenberger says it, then by God I’ll believe it. Oh, and let’s not forget that while pilots and flight crews are scanned or patted down each time they get to the airport, many other airline employees are not. Folks like baggage handlers, caterers, and cleaning crews routinely have access to aircraft, and are not scanned at all. In fact, much of their work has been outsourced to third-party companies that may (or may not) have a good record at doing background checks. If I’m Al-Qaeda, I’m thinking it’s far easier to have a sleeper agent hired as a baggage handler at an airport with crappy security than it would be to go through any security line, body scanners and patdowns aside.

You might wonder why the federal government is hellbent on using the scanning machines in the first place. Why, it just might be because the government was lobbied hard by… The Chertoff Group, a consulting group founded by political hack and former DHS head Michael Chertoff! And who paid the Chertoff Group to lobby the government? The companies that make the scanners? NO WAY! Why, I see absolutely no conflict of interest there!

Certainly someone like Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano could straighten this mess out, right? Well, no. She’s busy bowing to Muslim interests, which say that the scans and pat downs are against their religion for modesty reasons. There’s even talk of her allowing Muslim women to bypass the scanners completely. Which is fine, I guess… except that Muslims are the very fucking people who’ve caused all this trouble in the first place. Yes, I know that every Muslim is not a terrorist. But almost every terrorist act against the United States has been carried out by Muslims:

In the meantime, TSA agents remain busy fondling children and seizing breast milk in airports… in the United States of America. Perhaps we should just go ahead and declare the war over: the terrorists have won. Because if we stop being Americans, then the terrorists have won. Why should we abandon our rights for the sake of security theatre? Rights which were given to us by God and not the U.S. fucking government, as Jefferson and Hamilton would remind us.

Is this how it’s going to be? Did our fathers and forefathers give up all they owned to come to America… only to have us give up halfway? Did we really spend all that time and money in the Cold War, just to turn in to the Soviets ourselves?

I will say this: I’ll be damned if I’ll live in a world where my girlfriend, sister and mother have to submit to an electronic strip search or TSA groping before they can get on an airplane. If anyone is taking naked pictures of my girlfriend it’s me goddammit, and if a TSA agent touched my girlfriend in a bar they way they do in an airport I’d break a bar stool over his head.

There’s a line, folks. And this is it. I’ve wanted to take Lisa to New York for a couple years now, and we’re both dying to visit some friends of ours who recently moved to Amsterdam. But neither one of us will go so long as these Orwellian “security” measure are in place. So, if you’re an airline executive reading this now (and how strange would that be?), just know that your airline is out at least a couple thousand bucks thanks to TSA. I’d also like to remind you that the legislation creating the TSA has an opt-out clause which, since 2003, has allowed any airport to dump the TSA for a private company. I think the GOP is going to vocally remind the American people about that in the very near future.

I don’t ask for much from the readers of this website. I post pictures of pretty girls. I post jokes and pictures that strike me as funny. I give tips to Windows power users. I write recaps of my favorite TV shows. I even indulge my interest as an amateur historian. But I’m asking you, the reader, from the depths of my heart to think about this issue and let your elected representatives know how you feel. Write to the CEOs of the airlines. Protest at your local airport. Put a sign in your yard. Just do something.

This is important, people. This isn’t just about being hassled while getting on the 4:15 to Newark. This is about who we are and the kind of nation we want to be. Do we want our children to grow up thinking that it’s normal for a man in uniform to put his hands all over an innocent woman? How will we be morally able to lecture the Chinese on their human rights record if every American is strip searched by a machine before flying? And where will it all end? If this is okay today, what will be “okay” tomorrow? Statistically speaking, you’re probably more likely to be simultaneously struck in the head with a meteor and struck by lightning whilst winning the million dollar payout at a Las Vegas slot machine than you are to be killed by a terrorist. Yet why are some of us so willing to give up our liberty for safety?

If my words don’t move you, perhaps the words of Patrick Henry will:

Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

4 thoughts on “Touching Sensitive Areas

  1. Sean G.

    Great read, Jim. You’re absolutely right, we’re on a slippery slope if there ever was one. The American people need to stand up and make themselves heard now or who knows where the next line will be drawn. Even though I only fly a couple of times a year, I loathe the whole experience mostly because of the bullshit so-called security theater of the TSA.

  2. tanniah

    Absolutely eloquent, and thank you so much for mentioning my article. I have about a million more issues with this each day I think about it but am wondering why more American’s are not freaking out! Is it that enough of them don’t know yet? Will this story explode as more start to travel this weekend?

  3. Liz P.

    Very nice piece, Jim. I must admit that every time I am patted down (4 out of every 5 times I go through the scanner), this has been done professionally by a female employee.

    That being said, as a frequent traveler in Europe, I am astounded by the vaguary of what is and is not allowed through the scanners. There is no list as to what you can and cannot take other than the amount of fluids. The non-fluid item list seems to be different for each country.

    Additionally, here in Europe you can purchase just about anything at the airport, and as long as you have a sales receipt and the proper bit of tape on the bag, you can carry this onto the plane. I brought back 4 litres of whisky from Ireland to Amsterdam in my carry-on baggage, but they conficated my tiny pair of manicure scissors. When I came over to the states last month, I had a huge box of Stroopwaffle (gooey maple inside a cookie) which I carried onto the trans-atlantic flight. I mean really… All that goo could have been little wafers of napalm, switched out in the bathroom (because the scanners are at the individual gates), and no one would have known.

    Add to the list of atrocities the fees for putting your bags in the hold. If we aren’t allowed to take it with us on the plane, we have to pay an extra $75 to put it in the hold. I’m pretty sure that’s criminal (or should be): taking commercial advantage of a secret directive. Or maybe that is what all this is about, annoy the passengers to the point where they are more than willing to pay for peace of mind and body.

  4. Pingback: TSA Follow-Up | jimcofer.com

Leave a Reply!