Randomizing airport security is unfair and unsafe

Former head of the TSA Kip Hawley has written a book, “Permanent Emergency,” and an extended editorial in the Wall Street Journal arguing that airport security is broken. I can’t help agreeing with him that, “In attempting to eliminate all risk from flying, we have made air travel an unending nightmare,” and that “If you’re a frequent traveler, you probably hate [the TSA].”

One revelation, however, is disturbing. Hawley writes: “It turned out that if the outline of two footprints was drawn on a mat . . . most people stepped on the feet with no prompting and spread their legs in the most efficient stance.” Hawley thinks the footprints idea was “brilliant.”

Ah, how the TSA loves it when we spread our legs without prompting.

Hawley makes a number of ill-considered recommendations for airport security, but the worst of them is his recommendation to randomize security protocols.

Unpredictable security is grossly unfair to travelers. Imagine if any innocuous item in your bag could be randomly declared impermissible on the plane, without notice. What could a careful traveler pack?

Imagine if screening alternated between a 90-second process and a 90-minute process. How much of your vacation time or family time would the TSA steal? How many flights would you miss?

Imagine if screening procedures for surgical wounds and implanted medical devices were unpredictable and sometimes painful and unsterile (which procedures have already been). How many people would have to stop flying to safeguard their health?

Of course, we don’t have to imagine these things, because they are already happening. Airport security is already random and unpredictable, by virtue of both the excessive secrecy of the TSA and the incompetence of its employees.

The TSA says its standard operating procedures must be kept secret from travelers. But TSA employees don’t know the procedures either. One TSA whistleblower stated recently that she had never seen the TSA’s standard operating procedure (SOP) manual and that she had no idea what its contents were.

Unpredictable security is particularly unfair because many reasonable people object to the TSA’s probing for private medical information or inspecting our genitalia visually or manually. Further, many passengers still, even with all the publicity, have no idea that screeners might reach inside their pants or rub their sex organs at the checkpoint. How can passengers consent to a search without knowing what they are consenting to?

Even more problematic is the TSA’s claim that although passengers cannot know what a search will entail, passengers cannot refuse offensive search procedures. To fly today is to give the TSA a blank check to do anything it pleases with your body.

Unpredictable security leaves passengers vulnerable to incompetent screeners. The TSA has admitted that the recent strip-searching and forced-breast-pumping incidents were caused by screeners’ errors. How can passengers object when they’re subjected to incorrect procedures if they have no knowledge of the correct procedures?

Unpredictable security also leaves passengers vulnerable to predatory screeners. Male screeners at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. kicked metal detectors to set them off when large-breasted women walked through, then took the women to a stairwell and told them to strip.

“They actually had the passenger remove the clothing that covered the sensitive area and perform a duck walk to see if something would fall out,” said one TSA employee. Some of those strip-searches were videotaped.

The TSA has hired hundreds of unsavory characters who were later convicted of theft, child pornography, and rape.  If passengers don’t know exactly what to expect, how will they know when they are being taken advantage of?

Hawley ends on an encouraging note for TSA opponents: “No security system can be maintained over the long term without public support and cooperation.” Let’s hope this proves true, and let’s continue to fight.

Fight the TSA’s sexually abusive rituals by refusing to support or cooperate with this reprehensible organization. We may yet restore the presumption of innocence and the respect for our bodies that should have been inviolate. But only if people stand up and demand it.

(Photo: Flickr/zappowbang Justin Henry)