Many readers reacted to the recent story of the crying three-year-old girl in a wheelchair who was searched and harassed by the TSA at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport (after she had already successfully cleared the checkpoint) as though this were an uncommon incident. It should probably come as no surprise that in today’s 24/7 news cycle relatively recent incidents quickly fade into the past.
It’s been nearly 27 months since the TSA instituted its invasive pat-downs and scanner searches, along with supposedly reduced searches of children under 12. Searches of children, however, have been a staple of TSA security long before October 30, 2010.
Stories of TSA harassment of children before then were seldom reported unless they were outrageous (ironically, that link contains a quote eerily similar to that stated by the 3-year-old girl recently reported: “Immediately after this happened I hugged my son and he started crying and saying ‘I don’t want to go to Disneyland.'”) Such reports were more often about the sheer inanity of the agency, such as grade-school children being on a terrorist watch list, than about the harm to the child.
That dynamic changed during the 2010 holiday season when suddenly parents found themselves — and worse, their children — being subjected to searches of their bodies previously limited to the private and professional confines of a physician’s office.
The most invasive and outrageous searches occurred immediately after the change in procedures. The earliest report was the search of a six-year-old boy by a female TSA screener in Charlotte that left many incredulous. The parent related the following details, details that would become all too frequent in years to come:
En route home through Charlotte, our 6-year-old son was subjected to an aggressive pat down by a female TSA employee. He was pleading for me to help him and I was admonished for trying to comfort him. His genitals area was groped. He walked down to the plane in tears. When the stewardess asked why he was crying, I explained my frustration and I was further admonished for not being more compliant.
(So even the flight attendant got in on the act. Nothing like doing the TSA’s dirty work for them.)
After substantial public and political pressure, the TSA ostensibly amended its policy in mid-November 2010, and TSA spokeswoman Kristin Lee announced: “After a thorough risk assessment and after hearing concerns from parents, we made the decision that a modified pat-down would be used for children 12 years old and under who require extra screening.”
The TSA Blog went into great detail to deny that children would be searched to the same degree as adults. A post titled “TSA Myth or Fact” made several pronouncements that in retrospect could be kindly categorized as whoppers:
Fact: TSA officers are trained to work with parents to ensure a respectful screening process for the entire family, while providing the best possible security for all travelers. Children 12 years old and under who require extra screening will receive a modified pat down.
Fact: Only passengers who alarm a walk through metal detector or AIT machine or opt out of the AIT receive a pat-down.
Fact: (Updated 11/23/10 to show percentage) (Updated 3/30/2011 to include random pat-downs) No. In fact, less than 3% of passengers receive pat-downs. Only passengers who alarm a walk through metal detector or AIT machine or opt out of the AIT receive a pat-down.
While the policy was being changed inside the Washington beltway, the searches of children continued in airports, including searches of a three-year-old, a six-year-old, and a nine-year-old in a wheelchair.
While the TSA claimed to be adjusting its searches of children, these expanded into inexplicable searches of a nine-year-old in February of 2011 as he and his family were leaving an Amtrak station that was nowhere near an airport.
A spate of abusive searches of children in April 2011 included an adolescent boy, a three-year-old girl, and an eight-year-old boy. But it was the video of search of a six-year-old girl in New Orleans that went viral and ended up in a Congressional hearing that may have turned public opinion against the TSA and inflicted the most damage to the agency. In a strategic faux pas, the TSA scrambled to defend its screener, claiming she had “followed procedures,” further infuriating lawmakers and critics.
While the TSA attempted to offset criticism, a more outrageous search of an infant in Kansas City made headlines in May 2011, revealing the level of absurdity that the agency and its supporters had reached.
The searches of children continued through the summer of 2011, and in September TSA Administrator John Pistole instructed screeners to make every effort to screen young children without giving them the new, invasive pat-down. The TSA officially announced that it would stop harassing children under 12, presumably forgetting that the agency had promised the same thing ten months earlier. Perhaps they expected everyone to believe that they actually meant it this time and decided they would allow kids to keep their shoes on as a goodwill gesture.
The honeymoon didn’t last long. The search of a three-year-old in January 2012 was followed by yet another series of child searches that made headlines. These started with a fifth-grader who was groped, and a four-year-old girl who was bullied, screamed at, and surrounded after innocently hugging her grandmother.
The child search reports in April 2012 culminated with a particularly disturbing incident involving a seven-year-old girl with cerebral palsy. The family was initially cleared following a search at the checkpoint, and after arriving at the gate was confronted by the TSA and forced to return to the checkpoint so TSA agents could inspect the child’s crutches. During the incident screeners berated and screamed at the child and parents. The multiple searches resulted in the family’s missing their flight
In December of 2012, in an incident similar to the most recent one, a 12-year-old, wheelchair-bound girl was detained at a checkpoint in Dallas after a screener’s claim that she tested positive for explosives. According to reports, other passengers traversing the checkpoint became vocal upon seeing the sobbing child and began chastising TSA workers. The mother reported that after passengers began speaking up for the child, they were quickly told they were free to go.
This year opened with a blog report of a diabetic child who was searched in Denver after opting out of the scanner to avoid damage to her insulin pump. The TSA had instructed screeners to halt excessive searches of travelers with insulin pumps or supplies following an incident in June 2012, in which a 16-year-old girl had her $10,000 insulin pump destroyed after being forced into using a scanner.
Which brings us to this most recent incident and yet another child traumatized by abusive TSA screeners without providing a shred of benefit in return. It remains to be seen if the publicity from this incident will finally result in improved treatment of children, or if the endless cycle of airport horror stories followed by agency propaganda will persist. Recent history would indicate that the media will be revisiting these kinds of stories for years to come.
(Photo: courtesy of Gateway Pundit)