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The Independent Institute
Commentary

TSA Treats for Holiday Travelers


Last week, I was so irate after flying the 2,000-mile roundtrip from my home in Washington, D.C., to Chicago that I vowed to hitchhike next time. Did I have to endure the loss of my luggage for an extended period of time or sleep overnight in the airport because of the notoriously bad winter weather in Chicago? No, it was something much worse. Ominously, I received a boarding pass inscribed with “SSSS”—bureaucratese for winning (really losing) the lottery for a spot in the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) special security inspection line.

At first, a flash of paranoia gripped me and I wondered if I was being singled out for government harassment because of a column I wrote awhile back criticizing the TSA’s airport security procedures. Or could it have been that the government didn’t like my many anti-Iraq War columns? Finally, I realized my ego was inflating my importance to the government and that the special inspection was probably related to the airline check-in attendant’s offer to put me on an earlier flight. (If I get those same nefarious S’s during the two other air trips I’ve scheduled during the Yuletide season, I may reconsider my original, more sinister hypothesis.)

I began to wonder why changing a flight raises a red flag with the authorities. Don’t millions of people do this everyday in the United States because of inclement weather, changes in their schedules, or mechanical problems with aircraft? Besides, before 9/11, instead of changing flights, the terrorists repeatedly took the same flights to size them up for attack.

And while we’re at it, the government is soon apparently going to allow airline passengers to once again carry onboard the knives, scissors, fingernail clippers, etc., that were banned after 9/11. Apparently, authorities now believe that blowing up planes with bombs is a bigger threat that hijacking them and running them into buildings. Does this mean that they were wrong about the major threat for years after 9/11 or that TSA is merely trying to find an excuse to lessen some of the most unpopular security measures that have threatened the agency with bureaucratic extinction?

Finally, although the courts (never ones to stick up for the Constitution) have allowed authorities to search all people and their things at airports and roadblocks designed to catch drunk drivers without “probable cause,” don’t such general searches explicitly violate the Fourth Amendment?

Oops, such commonsense questions by any thinking air traveler can only make one skeptical of the government’s efforts to provide genuine security. They can also make your life miserable.

After having all of these thoughts as I went through the regular security screening, which entailed stepping through a metal detector and the usual scan of my luggage and my shoes, I was a bit annoyed when I reached the additional screening area.

Although I held my tongue, my annoyance must have shown as the TSA inspector made me do yoga-style contortions while he ran a wand over me, patted me down all over, and felt down the front of my pants (unbelievable, but true). Apparently, this gross violation of privacy is deemed acceptable to the government as long as a person of the same gender is inflicting it on the victim. Any ordinary citizen could be arrested for such behavior. Furthermore, the minimal—if any—added security provided by these additional intrusive measures is certainly not worth the personal violation. And my annoyance was rewarded by having my bag thoroughly ransacked—even though it had already been scanned electronically—with personal items strewn about and not repacked. Luckily, on this trip, I was not carrying holiday packages, which would have been unwrapped and carelessly opened.

On my return trip, I discovered, much to my horror, that these “random” inspections are not so random. When the agent gave me my boarding pass, it again had the ominous S’s on it. I asked her why I had been selected again for this torture. She said that I would have to ask TSA. I then asked the TSA special inspector why supposedly random searches—presumably designed to deter terrorists from bringing nefarious items onto a plane and actually catch some of them doing it—target the same people on both their outbound and return trip. I noted that if I hadn’t tried to commit a terrorist act on the outbound trip, the probability that I would do so on the return flight was low. When I said that spot-checking a greater number of people, rather than the same ones, would be likely to net more terrorists, the only thing the befuddled inspector could say was that the airlines, not TSA, made the decisions about who to search.

All of this has reinforced my original skepticism that most of these security measures are make-believe—merely governmental efforts to show the public that “something” is being done about terrorism. Airline hijackings and bombings have always been very rare and, even after 9/11, the average air traveler has a miniscule chance of ever being involved in such an incident. But unfortunately, this holiday season, the governmental Grinch gives us the gift that keeps on giving: airport pseudo-security.


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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