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Commentary

Sunday Reflection: ‘Dear TSA: I am not your customer’


     
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The Transportation Security Administration has taken quite a beating in the news cycle so far this year. In late April, screeners were caught taking bribes to allow drugs to pass through Los Angeles International Airport. Recently, a 4-year-old was detained, yelled at, patted down and otherwise terrorized for hugging her grandmother, who hadn’t completed screening yet.

In April, the TSA made us safer by terrorizing a 7-year-old with cerebral palsy. CBS DC reported that Dina Frank cannot use metal detectors because she walks with crutches and leg braces. The thorough pat-down of the 7-year-old caused the family to miss their flight.

No doubt such incidents will prompt people to call for the TSA to be streamlined, for the administration to adopt “new procedures” or for other Band-Aids that will create the illusion of decisive action.

This is insufficient. The TSA should not be streamlined. Administrators should not “review screening procedures.” Screeners don’t need additional training. The TSA doesn’t need to be tweaked. It didn’t “go too far” in these specific instances. Its very existence goes too far. The TSA never should have been created in the first place, and it should be abolished now. Immediately. Without hesitation.

The TSA’s existence is an assault on American liberty and simple human dignity, as anyone who has had his or her genitals touched during an “enhanced pat-down” can tell you. Some still say we should be willing to trade off a little bit of liberty in order to get security, but this is a false trade-off. The TSA does not provide security. It provides what security expert Bruce Schneier calls “security theater.” The TSA only exists in order to give people the illusion of safety. Someone in an airport somewhere in the U.S. is being subjected to an unreasonable search by a gloved TSA screener right this minute. The cruel irony is that he or she is being stripped of liberty and dignity and is being made no safer for it.

As security experts John Mueller and Mark Stewart have estimated, the entire Homeland Security Department infrastructure fails on cost-benefit grounds. In order to justify the costs, Homeland Security would have to stop about four and a half attacks on the scale of the failed 2010 Times Square bombing every day.

On my last flight out of Memphis, Tenn., I noticed TSA “Customer Service” comment cards available after I got through the screening. After opting out of the scan and getting the Champagne Room Treatment from a gloved gentleman who saw no problem with being paid to touch me in ways that would have gotten him arrested for sexual assault in virtually any other context, I decided to fill one out.

I wrote the following:

  • “I am not your ‘customer.’

  • “What you’re doing isn’t ‘service.’

  • “‘Subject’ is a more appropriate term than ‘customer.’ I am a “customer” of the airlines I fly. The TSA stands between me and the airline with a credible threat that they will not let us conduct business unless I go through a ludicrous song-and-dance routine that involves partially disrobing and then either being subjected to nude imaging or a full-on groping that involves hand-to-genital contact.

  • I can think of a lot of words to describe the whole experience. ‘Service’ isn’t one of them.

I have two small children, and a third on the way. Fortunately, in the times we’ve flown with them, the worst thing we’ve dealt with is a few seconds in which my son was unsure what was going on when his teddy bear had to go through the X-ray machine. I hate to think about the nightmare some parents have gone through with how their kids have been treated by TSA screeners.

The TSA embodies a resource-wasting assault on liberty. The kicker is that it makes us no safer, so we aren’t even getting the extra security that supposedly justifies the indignities the TSA inflicts upon us. No review of TSA procedures will make a meaningful difference, nor will firings. The TSA never should have existed in the first place. It’s past time for it to be abolished.


Art Carden is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California, and Assistant Professor of Economics at Samford University.
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