Is the TSA abusive? I’m not so sure.

TSA-logoI know this won’t be popular, but all this anti-TSA rhetoric is getting tiring. Yes, on occasion, an agent might do something outside of procedure, and a complaint should be made, they should be investigated and if necessary, disciplined or fired. But 14 million people fly through US airports weekly, and we hear about maybe 1 or 2 supposed abuses every week or so, mostly because they’re the exceptions. And then everyone starts blogging and posting about what happened with only the complaint of the passenger to go on, assuming that there’s no other viewpoint to the story.

Sometimes, with the random selection process for screening, that pointer happens to point to a 6 year old kid or an elderly person in a wheelchair, or, like the latest one everyone’s going on about, a pregnant first grade teacher – who maybe, just maybe, opted out of the electronic screening as many pregnant women do because of concerns about “radiation” (which are completely unfounded as well) and then didn’t want to get searched either (in fact, she admits in her now widely circulated letter that she tried to refuse a pat-down and kept demanding to be allowed to go to her flight without being searched, to which everyone is going “aww, let the lady go, she’s a pregnant schoolteacher” – like anyone in line or in the TSA would have known that – it’s “Monday morning quarterbacking” at its worst). Who knows? But taking her at her word without any other input is just dumb. Security experts the world over have noted the rise in the use of prosthetic pregnancy devices that make a woman appear to be pregnant but hide explosives in terrorist attacks.

I have yet to have a negative experience with an agent, nor see anyone harassing a passenger, nor even know anyone who has been harassed. The only incident I’ve witnessed was a woman who refused to remove her shoes, jacket, or any of her metal jewelry or watch because she didn’t trust that she’d get them back when they passed through the scanner, and then got abusive when a female officer offered to do a pat-down search, in private if she wished. Bluntly, I wouldn’t want her passed through.

Last week TSA agents found 18 concealed firearms, 5 cases of other prohibited items concealed in carryon baggage, and 9 people traveling on false identification papers – all in cases where the people tried to get around the automated scanning process and get on a plane without being searched. That says something to me about the worthwhile nature of the security process, particularly the concealed guns.

Perhaps it’s my having been present in NYC during the 9/11 attacks, dealing with losing friends and colleagues, and living with the aftermath, but for me, flying is a privilege, not a right, and personally I have no problem with extra security measures if it might just save my or someone else’s life.


Comments (6)

  1. Vinod S

    interesting Dan, and i hear you to some extent, but i think you are missing an important point. its quite possible that the prevalence of cases of abuse is low, but to me, the main criticism of TSA is not that its abusive. its that its horribly ineffective. and its yet another example of how we have too much of a reactive approach to terrorism instead of a proactive one, which should focus a lot more on good intel and less on “security theater.” And as the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg often writes, these long lines outside of security are now probably the most vulnerable place in airports. there’s so little thought that goes into our so-called anti-terrorism measures.

    1. Dan P. (Post author)

      Well, I guess the question is as to whether it is ineffective or not. That’s a common claim, but it’s an unprovable one from either direction. We haven’t had an in air terrorist incident since full implementation of the TSA, but does that mean that they’ve been effective in preventing them (I’d say the finding of 18 concealed firearms might indicate a possible yes – but it depends on who those people were and why they were carrying the guns), or does it mean that no one has made an attempt (which could be simple circumstance or it could be because of the deterrent factor of the TSA being in place). Either way, proactive measures are likely a good move – but that’s outside of the TSA and in the hands of the FBI, CIA and NSA and associated agencies. For the most part, they don’t report to the public the things they prevent, so it’s pretty hard to judge what it is that they’re doing and how effective it is.

      I have no problem with having both in place, and I think the elimination of one or the other would be a bad move.

  2. Vinod S.

    just seeing this now. not sure its as unprovable as you suggest. i have yet to see one major terrorist plot prevented by TSA. all the main ones disrupted were done well before the arriving at airport stage. and we’d know about it if there were major successes because the government would want the pr. plus not clear that these examples of what you call success that you cite could not have been detected under the old model. i am not saying good airport security is not needed. but i’m not seeing that in any of the post 9-11 measures.. plus there are major costs. intel gathering may be a separate component but we don’t have infinite resources. we need to prioritize. also costs in the way numerous american citizens lives are disrupted by being put on no-fly lists for no apparent reason or being detained by tsa for not appearing the right way. not to mention as i pointed out before that airport security lines now becoming security risks themselves. i don’t agree that one life saved is worth whatever the costs are of tsa methods. plus a lot of lives have been ruined, without basis, due to airport security measures.

    1. Dan P. (Post author)

      I think “lots of lives have been ruined” is stretching it way past any credibility. Disrupted, yes. Inconvenienced, yes. Caused problems, yes. Ruined? Point to one single example of someone’s life being ruined by being on a no-fly list or having to be patted down at the airport. If not being able to fly ruins someone’s life, they seriously need to get their priorities in order.

      It still comes down to I think you approach air travel from the opposite perspective that I do. You seem to feel it’s your right to travel by air or that there’s some sort of guarantee of access. It’s not and there isn’t. It’s a private enterprise regulated by the government and it’s a privilege to use, and an option on their part to provide it or refuse it to any given person.

      Keep in mind, too, that the no-fly lists you refer to aren’t created nor maintained by the TSA. They’re enforced by them, without the discretion to interpret them, under direction of the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, who are the ones that create them – there’s your advance intelligence, proactive agency, at work.

  3. Vinod S.

    well perhaps i should have known better to realize this is not a topic that is conducive to discussing online but rather requires an in-person exchange, preferably involving liquor. real quick though, yes i may be exaggerating a bit. but i was also not referring just to tsa but really the wider related policies that include INS, etc. so perhaps my bad to not clarify. in that context, there is not space here to account all the examples.

    one thing, no i don’t think flying is a basic right. (note though its far from just a leisure pursuit – many people’s economic well-being depends on them being able to fly, even today) so no major disagreement. but it does not seem too much to ask to expect (and demand)intelligent and effective govt policy. also i don’t agree with this notion that a lot of people have that when it comes to security the State should be able to do whatever it desires or at least have some type of carte blanch and the burden should be on us citizens to prove why the measures are problematic. the burden should be on the State to justify its increase in power/control over its citizens and it should always be highly scrutinized as it does so. and made to account for the efficacy of its policies.

    1. Dan P. (Post author)

      I don’t disagree with the last, I just don’t feel that they’ve gone too far in this case.


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