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Commentary

Chatting Up the TSA


     
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Next time you go to the airport be sure to put on a happy face, even if you’ve been informed that your flight has been delayed by an hour and that you’ll miss all your connections. You’ll need this cheerful façade to make it through the TSA airport security checkpoint.

As if being asked to strip off shoes, coats, belts and other clothing before going through a metal detector and getting your personal belongings x-rayed is not enough, the TSA will begin psychoanalyzing air travelers in 40 major airports next year. TSA screeners, who are not even fully trained law enforcement personnel, let alone professional psychologists, will perform behavior analysis screening on all passengers. The screeners will look for “suspicious” signs that might indicate a passenger could be a terrorist: having dry lips or a throbbing carotid artery (I’m not kidding), failure to make eye contact with or say hello to the screener, or evasive or slow answers to casual questions asked by the screener. Travelers who exhibit such nefarious characteristics will undergo extra physical searches—the infamous “pat down” frisk and bag rummage—and could even face police questioning.

This further invasion of the public’s privacy is part of a trend in law enforcement to go beyond merely responding to criminal activity in an attempt to prevent it. But allowing security personnel to question people, conduct intrusive searches, and possibly even make arrests on such flimsy criteria, instead of on hard evidence of criminal activity, should raise alarm bells with all Americans concerned about their civil liberties. Even psychologists who believe that analyzing body language in a controlled lab environment can detect deceptive behavior admit that studies are needed to see if it will work in the field—in this case, en masse and at chaotic airport checkpoints.

Other related psychological studies should cause even more skepticism. According to USA Today, Jonathan Turley, an eminent law professor at George Washington University, is concerned that behavior detection could morph into racial profiling. Turley noted that a person’s observations are often colored by his or her prejudices. Studies have shown that when whites and minorities are shown photos of people from various races, whites are much more likely to see minorities as threatening. In contrast, minorities are likely to believe fellow minorities are benign.

Turley also stated that the courts have allowed law enforcement agents to conduct a search when they have a “reasonable suspicion” that a crime has been committed. He argued that cataloging suspicious behaviors could provide a handy list for any abusive law enforcement officer to allege “reasonable suspicion.”

The law enforcement community and the Bush administration are enamored with the Israeli model of anti-terrorism. Israel’s policy includes aggressive behavior toward perceived external threats, as well as toward its own citizens, including monitoring travelers’ behavior at airports. But Israel is a quasi-police state—one which has failed to end continuing anti-Israeli terrorism by removing its underlying cause—and is certainly no model for the “home of the free and the brave” to emulate in any way. In fact, the United States should take the opposite approach. Instead of piling on yet another unnecessary and ludicrous layer of “big brother” airport security, the United States should tone down its foreign policy overseas in order to dramatically reduce anti-U.S. terrorism by removing its primary underlying cause.

Because the Bush administration is unlikely to adopt this enlightened policy, the traveling public is bound to experience ever more oppressive airport security. This may lead to a downward spiral of ever more cranky passengers exhibiting ever more “suspicious behavior,” leading, in turn, to ever more intrusive law enforcement questioning and searches. On the other hand, to avoid the extra security, maybe the public will catch on, fake a chipper demeanor, and chat up the TSA screeners. Even more likely, any sophisticated terrorist group, learning of the TSA behavior detection program through the media, will do the same.

Since the behavior detection program is unlikely to catch many professional terrorists, perhaps its real goal is to improve the morale of the unloved screeners by giving the public some incentive to be nice to them. So next time you travel by air, don’t forget your fake smile and ChapStick.


Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.

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