What my father would have said about the TSA

My father fathered the way they did on black-and-white TV, though not so much Ward Cleaver as Ralph Kramden (if he and Alice had had kids). He went to work, Mom stayed home. Every night we ate dinner together, but I don’t remember Dad ever saying much. When he did, it was so unusual that it stuck with you.

I was a latecomer, a product of the more permissive 1960s. That was the Vietnam era, a time when people weren’t feeling so good about their government.  One night at dinner — I was maybe 10 or 12 years old — I was relating the story of a discussion at school about the Pledge of Allegiance. I opined that it was rather foolish to pledge allegiance to “a piece of cloth on a stick.” I was a precocious kid in a turbulent time, what did you expect? Dad, a World War II veteran, looked up, fixed his gaze on me and said, “A lot of people died defending that piece of cloth on a stick.”

A dozen words, give or take. It may have been the only civics lesson he ever gave me, but I’ve carried it with me for 40-some years. I suspect I’ll carry it to my grave.

I’m thinking about Dad while I wait in line at the airport. They’re ordering an older man to stand on the mat with his arms extended so they can pat him down. A blue-shirted agent struts like the cock of the walk. Whenever I watch this I seethe.

Today I seethe out loud.

A 20-something traveler in line near me perks up. “Dude, why so angry?” he asks. Yes, he called me dude. I start to talk about idiocy of the liquids rule, then the body scanners and the pat downs. My fellow traveler interrupts, “Dude, chill! It’s no big deal.”

I fear my head will explode.

Here’s the thing: I think it is a big deal. Not because I’m some kind of prude who is afraid to have his junk touched; not because I have anything to hide. Just because.

Just because “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” The Fourth Amendment. Pure poetry.

When the odious Patriot Act was first enacted a decade ago some of us screamed that the government had no business looking at phone records and bank records without a search warrant. Overwhelmed with fear of another 9/11, many people disagreed. Maybe it was best, they reasoned, to stand back and let the feds give everybody’s checkbook and cell phone the once-over, just to make sure there were no calls or cash going to crazed jihadists.

I quoted Ben Franklin — we all quoted Ben Franklin: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” America thought about that, did some mental calculus, and decided that maybe some liberties weren’t really so essential. I remember someone telling a reporter, “I don’t send money to al Qaeda. Go ahead and look at my bank account if you want, I got nothing to hide.”

I look again at the young man in line near me. Since he was 12 years old he’s been doing the same calculus, making the liberty-for-security trade-off. He’s used to it. No big deal. Just chill.

The whole notion of privacy must seem strange to him. He came of age in a time when we carry our cell phones to the dinner table. Sure, it can be annoying, but it’s really valuable when someone needs us right away. He came of age in a time when there are cameras on every street corner, which has really cut down on vandalism (not). He came of age in a time when the supermarket knows what kind of breakfast cereal I buy, which is really convenient because they send me a coupon whenever Apple Jacks is on sale. Considering all the benefits, are we really giving up that much?

That’s when I hear Dad’s voice: “A lot of people died defending that piece of cloth on a stick.” I would add, “and those words on parchment.”

And suddenly I can articulate what’s been gnawing at me all this time:

It may be old-fashioned, it may be quaint, it may not be of use or of interest to you, but a lot of people thought the 4th Amendment was pretty damned important at one time, and goddamn it, dude, whatever you or the TSA trolls on the message boards may think, it’s not yours to give away. And it sure as hell isn’t John Pistole’s to take. So don’t tell me to chill out. It is a big deal. It’s one huge deal. And if I sound pissed off then at least you’re paying attention.

I do not consent to the scanners. I do not consent to the pat downs. For now, I may have to endure them if I want to fly, but you’ll trample my civil rights without my consent, thank you. In the meantime, while we wait for the courts or the Congress to redress this case of monumental government malfeasance, there’s one thing I can adjudicate all by myself, and that’s the right of you, my carefree traveling companion, to speak on my behalf.

Let me be clear: neither you nor any blogger nor editorial writer nor pundit should presume to tell me that it’s no big deal.

I’ll decide what’s a big deal to me.

Post your location on Foursquare if you like. Play out the dissolution of your marriage on Facebook. Tweet your every thought: obtuse, profound, poetic, or profane. And if you’d like to invite the government to read your emails, I can’t stop you. It’s your choice to give up your privacy, but don’t think for a second that you have permission to bargain away the right of the people to be secure in their homes and papers and persons.

I think that might have been what Dad was trying to say. Call it a piece of cloth on a stick if you like, and feel free not to recite the words if that’s important to you. But recognize that a whole lot of us might respectfully disagree.

There’s one more thing. I said a moment ago that this was a liberty-for-security trade-off.

It’s not.

It’s a liberty-for-nothing trade-off. The scanners don’t work. The patdowns are pointless. The screeners aren’t screened. No one knows what’s in the cargo hold. You want to strip us of the 4th Amendment — hell, you want to strip us naked — and what you’ve offered in exchange is security theater. Now I like the theater, but a civil right is too high a ticket price for this particular show. It’s too high for a season pass. It’s too high for lifetime access to every performance in every theater on Broadway.

Why so angry, Dude? Because you so casually bargained away a right that my father and your father and their parents and their parents’ parents fought to preserve.

Why so angry? Because you’re too obtuse to even realize what you’ve done.

Why so angry? Because now you’re trying to compel me to do the same.

Why so angry? Because we almost let you succeed, without demanding so much as a coupon for Apple Jacks out of the deal.

  • FellowTraveler

    Thanks for writing what so many of us are thinking.

    I am a security professional (with a great deal of knowledge re airport security and related) and can confirm it’s all b.s. The current security setup is not believed to have stopped a single terrorist. Not at the airports, nor elsewhere. And, more times than the public knows we’ve been just lucky and terrorist attempts have fizzled out (a few times, literally).

    If we act like sheep, we deserve to be treated like sheep. Let’s get the current idiot & co. out of the White House. It may be our last chance to start reclaiming the America we all vaguely remember.

    • Daisiemae

      It won’t do any good to get rid of the current idiot & co. If we replace him with another idiot and his co. Reps and Dems are both heavily invested in TSA financially and politically and will do nothing to stop the abuse and oppression of this criminal federal agency.

      It’s time to break the back of this so-called two party system owned and operated by the corporate regime and elect politicians who are not bought with millions of dollars donated by corporate owned super pacs. Ron Paul in November!

  • so nice to fly in china, “communist china” … sensible security, relaxed about baggage weight, modern airports, free wifi, plenty of leg room, free luggage trollies ..

    america, land of the monitored, home of the fearful.

  • annie

    Millions of words have been written on this subject. That’s all you complainers ever do. Why don’t you pick up the baton handed down by your forefathers? Instead of complaining like everyone else vote with your feet, boycott the slime balls. Do not travel by air. Do not go to the ball game. Keep your money in your pocket. Act but act non-violently.

    • annie, “That’s all you complainers ever do”?? Really? That’s your best shot? Perhaps it’s escaped your attention that we “complainers” have been speaking out publicly on this issue and urging concrete steps — including a boycott — for years. Years. All you have to do is look through the archives on this web site to see that. Hell, all you have to do is look at a post from two days ago to see that.

      We can’t force Americans to stand up and take a stand. We can only present arguments, present evidence, present facts, provide moral support, and hope they do the right thing.

      I stopped flying two years ago. I’m taking the money I used to give to the airlines and giving it to Amtrak instead.

    • 1amWendy

      @annie: there are many groups actively doing things other than “complaining like everyone else.” You obviously haven’t spent the time to catalog all sorts of concrete steps, so let me fill you in just a bit: lawsuits (EPIC, Corbett, Pradhan/Redfern) that are working their respective ways through various courts. Congressional briefings (Cato Institute, Freedom to Travel USA). All of us (and airlines have lost millions upon millions of miles to Amtrak and autos) that are taking lots of alternate transportation, especially since 2010 (Thomson, Simeone, Gentry, Beeker to name a few of the very vocal). Attendance and statements made against current procedure at the quarterly ASAC meetings (Freedom to Travel USA, National Association of Airline Passengers). Radio/TV interviews (Simeone, Gentry, Torello, Thomson). Continuing compilation of damning facts (TravelUnderground.com, Freedom to Travel USA). Monthly airport protests (Alaskans’ Freedom to Travel USA).

  • rmulligan

    Thank you for speaking out and yes, my father laid to rest more men than he will ever speak about. Men who gave their all for a country they loved. At 84, and a retired homicide detective, he cries every time he is subjected to experience and witness the degradation of his and all our rights by the government. He does not cry for himself, he cries for those who don’t understand and for those that do!

  • FulanoZutano

    Great piece Phillip. People who have no dignity are unable to respect it or even recognise it in others.

  • George2893

    So you’d rather have someone blow up your plane?

    • CelticWhisper

      Better to die free than to live in a society like the present-day USA.

      You better believe that if a terrorist blows up my plane, I’m going down fighting, doing everything in my power to rip that terrorist limb from limb before he can detonate his bomb.

      But if it comes down to it, yes, the risk of a terrorist bringing something dangerous onto a plane is one I’m willing to accept if it means that landside, I get treated like a human being.

      It’s worth it to me to take that risk if it means I get to see TSA pedosmurfs in the unemployment line, or begging on the streets and feeding their families out of dumpsters.

    • 1amWendy

      Your logic is faulty, George2893. This is not an either-or situation: it does not logically follow that changing security to something that respects people’s right to personal physical sanctity will absolutely result in planes blowing up.

    • Good one, George2893. I think the essay says something about TSA trolls, but for the sake of argument, let’s say that you are a well-meaning, if ill-informed commenter. By your logic, every time TSA lets someone through the metal detector instead of the AIT scan/patdown combo, an aircraft should fall from the sky. After all, the only thing keeping us safe is the inspection of America’s collective underpants. By now we should be threading our way through the wreckage of downed 737s every time we take the kids to soccer practice.

    • George2893, when you’re conversant with the facts, and not false assumptions, get back to us: http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/

    • Yes. I would rather live free until I die than live in a manufactured fear. Quality of life is paramount.

    • Phil Weber

      George2893, if I recall correctly, Patrick Henry had some thoughts on that liberty-or-death choice.

    • I would pay double, I would pay triple, for the chance to buy an airline ticket that doesn’t come with government thugs trying to get their hands in my pants. The TSA is sexually assaulting innocent people day in and day out – you’d rather have millions of people humiliated, degraded, sexually violated in a sickening ritual than consider for one second that letting immoral lowlifes rub your testicles has nothing to do with security. My definition of safety requires keeping strangers’ hands far away from my breasts and labia, so the primary threat to my safety at an airport is the TSA.

      • Daisiemae

        Amen, Sister!

  • 11 years ago 20 guys nearly all from Saudi
    Arabia hijacked our own planes to kill a few thousand Americans. 3000
    died. Terrorism as a threat to Americans is virtually non existent. Over
    150,000 Americans die every year from drug resistant staph infections.
    Mostly the young and old from hospital visits. Over 40K a year die in
    traffic accidents. That is nearly 2 million deaths in 11 years. Terrorism doesn’t even reach the top 100 threats to
    Americans. If our overlords in DC actually cared about American life
    they would be spending a trillion dollars on better hospital cleanliness
    and care and better roads and traffic control rather than security theater…. but nothing sells
    like fear. You gain power over people by convincing them that they are
    on the verge of being attacked and killed by the boogie man and only
    they can save you. LMAO. American land of the prisoners and home of the
    cowards. We have the largest percentage of our population in prison in
    the world. We cower underneath the bed at night frightened of
    desperately poor third world people who don’t have an army, don’t have
    military air planes, don’t have military ships, and haven’t been able to
    launch any kind of attack on our country since stealing our own planes
    to do it 11 years ago!!!! What a pathetic joke we have become.

  • What is the point in getting angry if people continue voluntarily going to the airport and continue allowing what is going on to continue? Every time they step on an airplane they have given TSA permission to continue functioning in all its idiocy, and the airlines, which has gotten your $$$, has gotten away yet again with staying silent on this issue.

    I am just angry enough to not fly any more. I am not going to legitimize illegitimate government’s hired blue shirts.

    • Phil Weber

      Susan, I think you raise a worthy argument. It’s a topic I want to address in a future post. For the moment let me say that I don’t feel that I have given TSA permission to do anything. I submit (because I must) but I refuse to consent.
      I choose to fly despite the TSA, rather than stay home because of them. For some people that would be a luxury, but for the rest of us I’d argue that it’s almost a necessity.

    • Susan, I stopped flying two years ago because of the TSA, as I’ve written about several times. I believe that the only thing that will force a change is an economic boycott. History has proven this. The civil rights movement wouldn’t have succeeded with marches and protests alone. Economic boycotts were essential.

      Unfortunately, we’re nowhere near a critical mass in this country of people willing to do this. Even though it would take only a few months, at most, for the airlines — therefore, the government — to respond, most people simply aren’t willing to endure the tiniest bit of sacrifice. And that goes for most of my friends, family, and colleagues as well.

    • I can’t say I don’t fly anymore because I do. I do it for work only. I’ve cut my travel in 1/3 in the past two years (from 100K to 30K). Has it impacted my work? Yes. Do I care? Yes. Will I ramp my travel back up to improve my standing at my job? No.

  • Daisiemae

    Very powerful piece, Mr. Weber! Your father was a very wise man.

  • Deb

    Excellent piece

  • TSAisTerrorism


    Brilliant. Simply brilliant.

  • I was standing in the TSA line in SD which winds around multiple times during some periods. All the time the wall monitors are blaring how great it is that we can be irradiated and what you should do so the TSA likes you and how they keep America safe. I genuinely believe I’ve seen that in a SciFi movie. Maybe more than one. I found it actually terrifying and the fact that no one around me seemed to even notice only compounded that feeling.

    • CelticWhisper

      Reminds me a bit of Dr. Breen’s announcements on the City 17 monitors in Half-Life 2.

  • anc1entmar1ner

    This should be required reading for anybody about to enter an airport. It always amazes me how people like the “dude guy” accept this total invalidation of our basic liberties. Why isn’t everyone screaming at our elected officials to force these clowns to follow the Fourth Amendment?

  • CelticWhisper

    I am in utter awe at how perfect this piece is. You hit every point I’ve been trying to make for the past 2 years and you do so as naturally as drawing breath.

    Furthermore, you’re the first writer I’ve read whose work really stands out as being “principle first” rather than making practical or economical arguments for opposing TSA.

    Yes, TSA is wrong. And that is why we stand against them. I don’t care how effective scanners are. I don’t care how effective gropedowns are. I don’t care if they prevent one 9/11 every week, or even every day. What they do is wrong, and there is no tradeoff that is worth even the slightest loss of freedom.

    On a related note, TSA, along with the rest of this country’s overreaction to 9/11, is PRECISELY WHY I do not rise for the pledge of allegiance or the national anthem anymore. Once this country acts like its pre-9/11 self again, then I’ll consider it. But I will stand in honor of the United States of America, Land of the Free. Not the United Anti-Terrorist States of Homeland, Land of the Safe and Secure.

    • Daisiemae

      I’ll never forget a sermon I heard once that stressed “Do right if the stars fall!”

      The notion that we should do the right thing no matter what the circumstances used to be commonplace in this country. Now it’s a foreign concept.

      I am stunned that so few in our country can see how wrong these scanners and gropedowns are. I am stunned at how few people have any moral principles anymore.

      Although I am not religious, I try to live my life by the concept of “Do right if the stars fall!” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Too bad that our politicians can’t do the same.

  • 1belami

    Excellent, Mr. Weber! Right on!

  • Great piece, Phil. My father would’ve been with you. He wasn’t born or raised in this country, and had the equivalent of only an 8th grade formal education, but he understood more about what this country purports to stand for than all the terrorphobes and “upstanding Americans” out there.

  • 1amWendy

    Mr. Weber, I LOVE your writing! Well done!

  • Beautiful piece. And right on.