If you love the TSA, watch this

by Christopher Elliott on February 27, 2013


It happened again.

At a time when the federal agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems can least afford it, there was another dust-up involving a young passenger — this time to Lucy Forck, a three-year-old with spina bifida flying to Disney World with her family.

When the little girl in a wheelchair is pulled over for a pat-down, her mother starts taping the procedure on her phone, which is permitted.

“It’s illegal to do that,” an agent says off camera, as Lucy sobs.

“I don’t wanna go to Disneyworld,” the girl cries.

After a 20-minute delay, the family was allowed to board their flight. The TSA eventually issued a tepid apology. The agency watchdog site TSA News Blog documented the controversy and added its two cents.

“The tactics here are insensitive and unkind on their face, as well as pointless,” wrote blogger Deborah Newell Tornello. “Not only is this little girl so obviously terrified to the point of crying out loud, and desperately upset that her comfort toy — her stuffed animal — is being taken away, she is distraught that her parents’ attempts to protect her are being summarily ignored.”

And that’s where it would have probably ended. Except that another site, which is probably best described as “pro” TSA, caught wind of the post and the predictable outrage being generated in the comments.

And it had a very different perspective.

“If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a million times,” the blogger wrote on a Boston-area sports site. “There is no bigger supporter of TSA on the planet than me. I’m team TSA loud and proud. I pretty much side with them 1,000 percent of the time in situations like these. And guess what? I’m siding with them again here.”

The Boston sports fans collided with the civil liberties activists on TSA News, creating a digital mushroom cloud. Eventually, the comment thread had to be shut down.

Where did these apologists come from?

It would be tempting to dismiss these TSA defenders as nothing more than social media plants paid by the Department of Homeland Security to rally support for a demoralized TSA. But that explanation would be too simplistic.

While there’s plenty of evidence that the American federal government is actively engaged in blogging and other forms of social media, it’s also an undeniable fact that some air travelers stand behind anything the TSA does — no matter how ill-advised or constitutionally problematic.

One of those voices belongs to travel guidebook personality Arthur Frommer, who comes to the TSA’s defense at regular intervals.

“We should be grateful to have a serious, dedicated TSA working hard to prevent terrorists from taking weapons onto a passenger airplane and seizing control of it,” he wrote on his blog recently. Frommer has also dismissed the TSA’s critics as “alarmist” and “sensation-seeking.”

Is there common ground?

Are these TSA defenders right? Are the agency’s critics just a small group of activists hell bent on letting the terrorists incinerate another plane over America’s skies?

I don’t believe so. Based on the support and readership of my TSA coverage, and the many other critical voices that cast doubt on the agency’s current procedures, I’m fairly certain that the “Team TSA” passengers are a misunderstood minority.

What’s more, I think they can be persuaded to come over to the right side — to “Team Passenger” (which, parenthetically, the TSA should be on, too). Their arguments come unraveled after just a few short minutes of dialogue.

Read the comments on the TSA News story for an example. The agency’s defenders insist that if we don’t remain vigilant, we will have another 9/11 on our hands, which is a fair point. But then they suggest that bending the Constitution and the law in order to achieve security is justified, and that the proof this questionable strategy has worked is 11 years without another terrorist bombing.

The TSA critics reply with cold logic. If you start reinterpreting the Constitution and passing laws that infringe on our basic rights as Americans, it’s a slippery slope, they say. And besides, the absence of another 9/11-style attack doesn’t necessarily mean that the present measures have been effective; it’s possible that the terrorists are just looking elsewhere to inflict damage.

The response? Personal attacks, which is what TSA apologists like to use as a weapon of last resort. They call the activists “cowards” and paint them with a broad brush of unpatriotism, or worse. That’s because they’ve effectively lost the debate.

Maybe you shouldn’t make generalizations about TSA supporters based on the rants of a Boston sports blog, but you certainly can get a feel for where they’re coming from. They just don’t understand how anyone could question an agency that’s ostensibly there for our own protection.

And yet, there’s also common ground. When we fly, both the activist and apologist are on the same plane. But one group feels that as long as the flight lands safely, every step that was taken by the TSA is justified. The other believes how we arrive safely does matter.

And patting down three-year-olds in a wheelchair is not acceptable, say critics.

It’s hard to argue against that.

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