Is this the only way to change the TSA?

Here’s a question everyone should be asking after last week’s stunning verdict against Andrea Abbott, the Nashville mother who tried to stop TSA agents from patting down her teenage daughter: Where do travelers turn when they have a legitimate grievance against the agency charged with protecting America’s transportation systems?

Abbott and her daughter refused to submit to a full-body scan but eventually consented to have her frisked. Although their July 2011 confrontation was captured on camera (see video, below), and she appears to be quite civil, she was nonetheless charged with disorderly conduct.

Even more surprising was the decision reached by a jury of her peers. After four hours of deliberation, it found her guilty, and she now faces 30 days in jail and a $50 fine.

It’s difficult to find a court in the land that is willing to stand up to the TSA, even on something as small as allowing the public to comment on regulatory rulemaking. Back in September, a D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s petition to enforce the court’s own order on requiring public comments about the full-body scanners. To some, it looked as if the court told the TSA it had to follow the law and then said, “Oh, never mind.”

It shouldn’t come as a shock that passengers feel powerless against an enormous $8 billion federal agency that seems to have been given carte blanche to search air travelers. Passengers are careful not to say or do anything that might offend an airport screener, lest they end up being arrested and convicted of disorderly conduct.

Think about the last time you were screened by the TSA. Did you feel a little apprehensive? Were you afraid to say anything or do anything that might get you into trouble? Did you just keep your head down, obediently stacking your liquids, gels, laptop, and shoes on the conveyor belt and then walk through the scanner?

We should not have to feel that way.

So what’s a concerned citizen to do? Ask your elected representative to step in? Not a bad idea, but I’ve seen any number of laws proposed since the TSA’s infamous decision to either force air travelers through an untested scanner or offer an “enhanced” prison-style pat-down. From the Texas legislature to the halls of the U.S. Congress, each one of them failed, and future efforts by our representatives will probably be just as half-hearted — and unsuccessful.

Truth is, no one is willing to challenge the TSA. No judge in this land, no jury, no elected representative, has what it takes to put an end to what many believe is a de facto police state.

There’s only one person left: you.

Abbott’s conviction will only galvanize the National Opt-Out Week movement, which is urging every American to opt-out of the full-body scanners Nov. 19 to 26.

After last week’s column, in which I suggested that it was time to stand up to the TSA, some readers thought I was throwing my support behind Opt-Out Week.

That’s an interesting conclusion. As a matter of fact, I do support civil disobedience as a way to bring about change, particularly when nothing else works.

Opt-Out Week is a good start, and it’s certainly better than an opt-out day. I hope a week is enough. But for me, every day is opt-out day. I think it’s necessary to protest the TSA’s questionable screening methods for more than a week.

I’m afraid we may need a more organized movement, with a pledge we can sign, vowing to opt out of the machines every time. In order to truly reform the TSA, we need a million people who refuse to go through the scanners every day. That may be the only way they’ll get the message.

I may be wrong about that. And for the sake of people like Andrea Abbott, who took a principled stand against a government she thought had stepped across the line, I hope I am.

Update: An earlier version of this story didn’t have comments enabled and an incorrect poll. No, it wasn’t a conspiracy. I stayed up until 1:30 a.m. dodging a tsunami warning with my family in Hawaii and just hit the wrong button.

online polls

  • Jack Q

    I can’t stand dealing with TSA “officers.” Worst part of my time at airports,

  • I doubt opting out will have a significant enough impact to change anything. Then TSA just redeploys the people operating scanners to doing the gropes and frisks.

    Congress has no qualms about just giving them more money for whatever they claim they need.

    • Susan, if enough people did it, it would bollux up the works. That’s exactly what happened on Opt-Out Day in November 2010. It was, contrary to media reports that repeated TSA talking points, a success. Dozens of scanners were simply turned off, passengers directed through the old-fashioned metal detectors, gropes minimized because they take too long.

      The TSA didn’t want it to be known that people do have the power to change this, to take matters into their own hands.

      Problem now is that we’ve crossed the Rubicon. Millions of Americans have shown that they’re willing to put up with anything — and I do mean anything — to get on a plane. Uncle Sam sees this. When you give your abuser carte blanche to abuse you, what do you think will happen?

      I don’t see how we’re going to roll this back anytime soon.

  • Pat Downe

    Change the TSA? No, eliminate the TSA.
    TSA activity and policy flies in the face of traditional American culture (and civil liberties). The TSA is another police state organization that must go if Americans ever hope to be free.

  • NedLevi

    I have researched TSA full body scanners extensively for the many articles I’ve written and have had published. I have read about their safety and have found there is a serious lack of independent safety and health studies which have been carried out, of them.

    What we know about TSA’s backscatter x-ray scanners is that they will likely cause some air travelers to get cancer. We know they apparently aren’t monitored nearly enough to ensure they are irradiating travelers within their specifications.

    What we know about TSA’s MMW scanners is that we know virtually nothing about their health and safety effects on humans. There have been no long term studies of the effect of MMW radiation on humans, nor specifically of the MMW radiation emanating from the TSA MMW based full body scanners at airports across the US which I can find. I haven’t even been able to find short term independent studies of the same. Moreover, there is a study which shows that a high dose of MMW radiation can be dangerous to humans. We know that these scanners are apparently not monitored nearly enough that they are performing within spec with regard to the radiation they emit.

    We know that physicians are highly circumspect about radiation of any kind not hurting their patients. We know that physicians avoid irradiating patients unless they absolutely need the information from it. We know that radiation, at least x-ray radiation, is definitely cumulative. So even if the x-ray full body scanners, for example, emit a low dose of x-ray radiation, TSA, who claims they are safe, in actuality doesn’t know if they are safe for any individual traveler.

    I would ask, why is TSA not as circumspect as physicians concerning irradiating the very people they are supposed to be protecting? Why is TSA recklessly, and I choose that word carefully, endangering at least some travelers with their full body scanners? Why are the President and our legislators not protecting the traveling public from this federal agency, which in my opinion, is running amok?

    I personally refuse to submit to full body scanners each and every time I go through security at airports across the globe. While I find the TSA patdowns a reprehensible and disgusting experience, which treats everyone as if they are criminals without any probable cause, and without any reasonable suspicion, it is certainly better than submitting to the full body scanners.

    I urge each and every passenger to refuse to submit to full body scanning each and every time they are flying, and force TSA to pat them down, which doesn’t have the health risks of the scanners, and is even capable of finding the weapons and explosives the scanners can’t detect. In my opinion, the patdowns actually make us safer than the scanners.

  • Hivewhacker

    Opt-out week , and peaceful civil disobedience, are great in theory, but those of us who are forced to fly to work can not risk being detained- I work for a musician, and I absolutely, positively can’t risk missing a flight, or far worse, risk being arrested for defying the airport Gestapo by opening my mouth. I travel to Canada quite a bit, 4-5 times a year, and even the slightest blemish on your record (especially an arrest for standing up to the TSA) will prevent you from being allowed into Canada.
    The TSA harshes my mellow worse than any government agency ever has, and I have to bite my lip and be on my best behavior every time I have to deal with these fascist thugs, which makes my head want to explode, but I have absolutely no choice in the matter. I’m forced to fly so I can be there when and where my employer needs me, or there’s no show that night, and I lose my job. I was in this business long before the TSA existed, and all of this has become a major debacle which keeps getting worse and worse- I am forced to reconsider my career choice every time I have to deal with these Nazis- in our current economic situation, I can’t even entertain the thought of giving up a 35 year career, but having to deal with these jackbooted idiots is becoming harder with each flight, and I have to fly 60-75 times a year lately.

    • LeeAnneClark

      I feel exactly as you do. I don’t have to fly for business, but I fly often to visit my elderly disabled mother. She has had to have major surgeries several times over the past few years – breast cancer surgery, hip replacement, back surgery. She is living alone in a distant city and she needs me there when this stuff happens. I refuse to let the TSA stop me from being there for my Mom when she needs me. And I also can’t risk being detained and NOT being there for her.

      I also have been taking her on vacations around the world. This is something I started doing over ten years ago, to pay her back for what a horrible teenager I was. This is a major joy in her life, and I also refuse to let the TSA stop me from giving it to her. She doesn’t have that many years left, and I intend to make them the best years of her life. But once again, I cannot risk the TSA detaining or arresting me and putting my mother in a difficult situation, or ruining a vacation we’ve spent a year planning.

      On the other hand, I simply cannot allow bullying strangers to sexually assault me.

      So it’s a real conundrum. And I break out in a cold sweat every time I approach a TSA checkpoint.

    • Hivewhacker, I have, as I’ve written many times, complete sympathy with you and people in your position. You are indeed between a rock and a hard place. But millions of us aren’t. That’s why it’s even more important for those of us who aren’t to stand up and fight, for ourselves and for people like you.

      That’s what “community” means. That’s what “values” means. That’s what standing on principle means. But too many complacent Americans don’t get it.

      • Daisiemae

        Not too many people have principles anymore. Principles are passé. People like us are dinosaurs.

    • NedLevi

      Refusing to submit to TSA full body scanner and requesting a patdown will not get you in hot water with TSA. It will merely take more time getting through TSA security, about an extra 5-7 minutes, in my experience.

      I too can’t afford to miss my flight, and can’t afford to get arrested. I have trusted traveler status with Homeland Security and have no intention of jeopardizing that status. It helps me get through immigration and customs very quickly when returning to the US, via Global Entry. I save an average of 45 minutes each time I return to the US.

      I never, repeat never, go through a TSA full body scanner, and I fly often as a travel photographer and travel writer. When I get in the line for the scanner, I politely and courteously tell the TSA TSO that I need to be patted down, that I won’t go through the scanner.

      TSA can’t refuse that request, and I have never been refused a patdown in lieu of scanning.

      When being patted down, I cooperate with the TSA TSO (Hey, they didn’t make the rules and they should be treated with respect, in my opinion, unless and until they do something wrong themselves.) and follow their directions. It has been a long time since I’ve not been treated professionally during the invasive patdown. I don’t like the patdown, but it is better than submitting to the scanner..

    • RedRavenSounds

      I’m a musician as well, however its no longer possible to take gigs which require airtravel. Its not worth the degradation, nor the radiation I do have a day job, so that allows me to just say no, and reluctantly not take the gig. I take the gig if I can drive to it. I feel for you man…. I really do. Peace out, Cindy

  • james

    Another way is through the use of black block tactics. And eventually it is going to cone to openly violent disobediance.

    • I’m not a fan of the black bloc. Count me in for NONviolent civil disobedience.

    • NedLevi

      I personally will never resort to such tactics. I believe that the way shown by Gandhi and King is the way to go.

      I have to fly, and I’ll go through TSA security my way. If we all refused to go through the scanners it would make the difference which is needed, but too many act like sheep to slaughter and submit to the potential dangerous screen.

      If the vast majority of travelers refused to go through the scanners TSA would have little choice but to change.

      • Bravo, NedLevi! This is what many of us have been advocating for two years.

  • Daisiemae

    I didn’t vote because the question is too black and white. Opting out is an important part of ending the TSA. But what about all of us who have quit flying entirely because of TSA’s abuse and tyranny? That is the ultimate opt out. There needs to be a way that we are counted too. I think there are far more of us than anyone realizes. Maybe if the airlines knew just how many there are of us, they would be motivated to do something to get our business back.

    • I agree Daisiemae. My opt out consist in giving up the Platinum status I have had with Delta for many years and driving to all my destinations.

      • kfred

        I lost my Platinum status too last year because I stopped flying as much. I also make a point of telling Delta that is THE reason they have lost so much of my business travel revenue.

        • kfred, I did the same with British Airways. I stopped flying entirely.

          The airlines are complicit in this abuse. If they squawked, you’d better believe things would change. But they won’t squawk unless and until enough people make them feel it, make them hurt financially. And I know how long that’ll take — till I’m dead and in my grave. But at least I can go there knowing I tried to fight the good fight.

  • Hi – great post. The link to the report about the verdict seems to be broken, though. I’m astounded a jury convicted her. The male cop in the video is clearly the aggressor; he spends almost the entire time intimidating her and finally arrests her just for talking back to him. He should be the one going to jail.

    • Kevin, I agree the cop is the one who was out of line. I just checked the links. They all work.

    • cjr001

      I’m not surprised at all. The jury system in this country is as broken as everything else in this country.