How to stand up to the TSA and say “no”

by Sommer Gentry on November 21, 2011

I was ejected from a Dulles (Washington, DC) airport checkpoint this week for refusing all of the following: an X-ray radiation dose, a short stint as a TSA porn star, and unwelcome sexual contact with a stranger.

Since November 2010, I’ve been rearranging all of my travel to avoid the TSA’s body scanners and “enhanced patdowns.” I always check the website tsastatus.net to be sure that I only use airports and checkpoints that do not have the dreaded blue boxes. Otherwise, I take Amtrak or drive, or else I cancel my trip.

Somehow my wires got crossed and I wound up facing two completely unacceptable options at the TSA checkpoint.

There are two important messages for travelers in what happened next: I walked away, and then I flew to my destination from another airport.

Every traveler has a right to refuse TSA searches

If the TSA tries to do something to you that you find offensive, you should say no. Although the TSA has threatened travelers with fines and tried to argue that walking away isn’t permitted, in practice the TSA has no power other than the power to deny you access to the boarding gates. The police do have the power to detain you, but that requires individualized suspicion, something that you do not exhibit merely by purchasing an airline ticket.

Since the TSA has steadfastly refused to describe exactly what anyone might be subjected to at a checkpoint, many travelers will find themselves pressured to bow to unpredictable and unreasonable demands. For instance, flyers report being physically strip-searched in private rooms, and some women were coerced to bare their breasts to male screeners in a stairwell — would you comply?

Protecting yourself from invasive searches requires only willingness to abandon your travel plans and make new ones. United Airlines was wonderful and rebooked me for a later flight the same day from Reagan National Airport, where there are no scanners in Terminal A. The United employee who helped me even agreed with my stance, telling me that he thought the scanners were “not decent. They shouldn’t do that to people, it’s just not decent.”

The TSA’s body scanners have never deterred or prevented an act of terrorism

They are transparently avoidable. A Congressional report released the day before my Dulles ordeal noted the same thing, saying, “TSA deployed the AIT devices in a haphazard and easily thwarted manner . . . passengers are easily able to bypass this technology by choosing a screening lane without these AIT machines in use.”

Millions of people fly every day without passing through a body scanner. Airplanes flying from National’s scanner-free checkpoint are just as secure as those flying from Dulles’ blue box gauntlet — actually, the National Airport passengers are safer because they avoid unnecessary doses of ionizing radiation.

Depending on the circumstances, body scanners might well prevent a conservative grandmother from ever being able to meet her grandchildren, they might cause a TSA screener to be harassed and tormented by his co-workers’ comments about his genitalia, they might cause an Alaska state senator and childhood abuse survivor to have to take a four-day ferry trip home; but the one thing they absolutely cannot do is present an obstacle to someone who wants to attack an airplane.

TSA’s imagined “evildoers” would exploit the weakest links in aviation security; and passenger searches, even without offensive body scans and sexually humiliating patdowns, are far from the weakest links in this chain. Only some overseas cargo is screened, background checks for hundreds of thousands of airport workers are shoddy, there is no screening of supplies for post-security businesses, airport perimeters are not secured, no defenses are planned for shoulder-fired missiles, and the list goes on and on.

Possibly the weakest links are the screeners themselves, hundreds of whom have been dismissed or prosecuted for stealing from passengers. A dishonest screener who can take valuables out of your bags is a dishonest screener who can be bribed to put dangerous items into your bags. The changes you’ve noticed at airport checkpoints over the last year are security theatrics: massively expensive and dramatically intrusive, yet entirely worthless as defenses against terrorism.

The TSA has been ordering innocent Americans to do a lot of degrading things lately, and not a single one of these affronts has ever made anyone safer.

When you decide you’ve had enough, stand up to the TSA and say “no.”

(Photo: K Ideas/Flickr)

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