Who Watches the Watchers?

I’ve been mulling over this for a while, but a blog post by LiveJournal user elusis really put me over the top. Her viewpoints near the end of her post really put it into perspective for me.  Do yourself a favor and read it.

I’m not rallying against the Transportation Security Administration’s new guidelines because they offend me personally. Hell, if some TSA agent wants to rub his hands up my legs until he meets “resistance”, more power to him. But there are people out there who find this treatment entirely offensive, whether it be the forced molestation or the government sanctioned nudie pix. For them, I raise the flag and exercise my First Amendment rights.

The TSA was birthed as a result of the September 11 attacks in 2001. Ironically, within the next month or so, Richard Reid attempted to bring down American Airlines Flight 63 using explosives in his shoes. The TSA touted this as a rallying cry, despite the fact that they didn’t stop him. The passengers and flight crew subdued Reid and tied him to his seat while the flight was diverted. Nevertheless, the TSA decided that all air travelers would need to remove their shoes for scanning.

In 2006, terrorists in the United Kingdom used bottles of liquid explosives in an attempt to taking down at least 10 planes. British police stopped that attack, but as news spread, the TSA decided that all liquids and gels were to be banned from carry-on luggage. Shortly afterward, the rules changed to allow three ounces per container inside a transparent sealed bag.

On December 25, 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to used plastic explosives hidden in his underwear to bring down Northwest Airlines Flight 253. Abdulmutallab got as far as setting his leg and the bulkhead on fire before passengers and flight crew subdued him. Once again, the TSA had no hand in stopping him, even though Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano originally claimed that the system worked. She recanted the next day.

Finally, terrorists tried taking down flights by putting explosives in laser toner cartridges and shipping them on passenger flights. Once again, the TSA had no hand in stopping the attack – Saudi officials tipped off the authorities – but they took a predictable step by banning all toner cartridges over sixteen ounces on passenger flights.

Does anyone else notice a trend here?

First, none of these attack vectors is repeated. They are, in fact, escalating in complexity, and reports state that the terrorists are now resorting to smuggling bombs in their body cavities. Second, each of the preventative security measures implemented are purely reactionary blanket policies. At no point has the TSA, an agency designed to keep us safe, actually predicted that terrorists would move to another vector and cut them off. Instead, they close the barn door after the horses are miles away.

Each of these “security precautions” only serves to strip the rights and dignity of travelers at each implementation. From elusis:

Patricia Calhoun at Westword started reporting on women being singled out for inappropriate groping in 2001, just weeks after 9/11: http://www.westword.com/2001-10-18/news/screen-and-screen-again/

For the next year, I wouldn’t fly in anything other than a sports bra. Then the “zealous” screeners at DIA apparently eased off. I started wearing underwires through security again, but not without trepidation.

In 2003 I was almost arrested when I set off the metal detector because I was wearing a garter belt. I was pulled aside for the wand-down, which I didn’t object to. I told them they’d get a small positive on the front and back of each thigh from the clips, which they did. The screener then demanded that I go to a “private screening room.” “Not until my bags are done being x-rayed,” I said, aware that I had a couple thousand dollars worth of technology in my carry-on. “You’ll get them afterwards,” they told me. I refused to go and asked for the “private screening” in view of my bags, even if that meant in view of other passengers. They threatened to arrest me. I lifted my skirt to show them the garter clips, flashing the entire terminal in the process, and the screener started to grab my arm, but the supervisor waved her off and said “let her go.” I grabbed my bags off the conveyor and stalked off.

I have no illusions about what would happen today.

The thing is that nothing about this is new. Private citizens being arbitrarily singled out for intrusive searches and rough treatment by authority figures because of their appearance, their “attitude,” or just a momentary need for an endorphin rush by a small-minded bureaucrat? Welcome to the lives of people of color, the phenomenon of Driving While Black, the lives of women, of transpeople, of disabled people.

There are other tales of travelers having their breasts exposed during screenings or being hassled over prostheses.   Insert your own horror story here. Recently the TSA stated that their methods would have stopped the “underwear bomber” and actually turn up some “artfully concealed objects”. Guess what they do with those objects. They sell them on eBay.

Oh, and by the way, those new methods wouldn’t have stopped Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab because they weren’t implemented until after the attack, just like every other security measure, like the equally impotent and overreaching “No Fly List”.

The TSA claims that eighty percent of flyers don’t mind the new security screenings, but they’re not looking at the melanoma survivors, children, or elderly who are subjected to unnecessary radiation by being backscattered. I doubt they’re asking victims of sexual abuse or sexual assault who refuse to fly because being felt up by a stranger will likely trigger a panic attack. Pilots are already refusing the backscatter machines because of the excessive radiation; after all, they get enough radiation from being at high altitude for hours and hours a day.

I agree with elusis:

When I fly in December, if I’m pulled out for either of the imaging machines, I will adopt the same demeanor and rhetoric I use when a medical person tries to get me to step on a scale: “No, thank you.” Polite but firm. “Not today, thanks.” I will submit to the “enhanced” pat-down and tolerate having my hair stroked, my labia and breasts touched, my waistband fingered. I will ask to have it done in full view of all other passengers, not in a “private area,” and I will ask for a witness, possibly a police officer. And then I will go to my gate and write up my report for the ACLU. And I will adopt this same strategy until the policies change.

After all, even the TSA refuses to address how invasive these “pat-downs” are:

Myth: The TSA pat-down is invasive

Fact: Only passengers who alarm a walk through metal detector or AIT machine or opt out of the AIT receive a pat-down. For this reason, it is designed to be thorough in order to detect any potential threats and keep the traveling public safe. Pat-downs are performed by same-gender officers and all passengers have the right to a private screening with a travel companion at any time.

I don’t believe that the backscatter machines are safe for frequent flyers. Sure, the FDA has approved them, but you can easily find a list of things the FDA approved that were later rejected because they irreparably harmed people. I don’t believe the backscatter machines are incapable of saving images and are incapable of being hacked to make pornographic centerfolds of unwitting travelers. I don’t believe that the TSA is actively frisking their own agents and taking away their camera phones before letting them operate the scanners. I don’t believe the TSA isn’t hiring previous sexual offenders to operate the scanners of perform “pat-downs”. I don’t believe the TSA can say with absolute certainty that less than three ounces of liquids or gels isn’t capable of bringing down an aircraft.

I don’t believe the TSA is capable of keeping me safe on an airplane, pure and simple.

The Boeing 747 carries 550 to 600 people per flight. When I am among those people at 30,000 feet, I assume a certain amount of risk to get to my destination. That plane may crash, accidentally or deliberately, and I may die. Same as with my car or a train, which the Transportation Security Administration has ignored, despite the fact that most building bombings are conducted with vehicles. Furthermore, take it by the numbers: The United States Census reports that in 2007, 14,831 murders were reported nationwide. It also reports that New Orleans, Detroit, and Baltimore had the highest number of reported murders per 10,000 people. So, when do we lock down these cities? More people in a year are killed in these cities than in a year by terrorist activity on planes.

The threat is not severe enough to warrant a police state, which is what the TSA is turning into. Their powers are far too broad without any checks or balances to keep them in line. They claim that by flying, you give up rights at purchase, but I’ve never seen that in the fine print on any ticket I buy.

I am not okay with surrendering civil liberties including the privacy of one’s own body in order to limit the abstract possibility of a terrorist attack. Terrorists operate to paralyze a society with fear, yet they don’t have to work very hard in the United States: We’ve already done that job for them. Our fear has allowed a government agency to strip our liberties to promote their reactionary and impotent agenda of keeping us safe.

But who keeps us safe from the TSA?

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4 thoughts on “Who Watches the Watchers?

  1. I agree that nothing can make flying safe.
    There is no “security screening” that will stop terrorism. I’m not being defeatist, but realist. Ban shoes and they use toner cartridges, etc. They will think of something new. Sure, we should screen people with basic procedures to be sure they don’t have a gun/use our brains, but there is no need to freak out over every single crazy thing someone uses as a weapon. So, yes, I agree with this post in general.
    But I do have one thing to add. The TSA employees, by and large, are people just like you and I, and while some abuse their positions, most are just doing their jobs and grateful to have one. They think the rules are as stupid as you and I do. So, I will just add that I truly hope no one takes out the idiotocy of the TSA on its employees. That’s like bawling out your waitress because corporate decided that Chili’s will no longer make your favorite dish. Not her fault. Be respectful and file a complaint with corporate, but leave her alone.
    Just my slight addition, said on behalf of my dad, thirty year Air Force veteran who works for TSA and thinks this sucks, but needs the job.

  2. I agree that nothing can make flying safe.

    There is no “security screening” that will stop terrorism. I’m not being defeatist, but realist. Ban shoes and they use toner cartridges, etc. They will think of something new. Sure, we should screen people with basic procedures to be sure they don’t have a gun/use our brains, but there is no need to freak out over every single crazy thing someone uses as a weapon. So, yes, I agree with this post in general.

    But I do have one thing to add. The TSA employees, by and large, are people just like you and I, and while some abuse their positions, most are just doing their jobs and grateful to have one. They think the rules are as stupid as you and I do. So, I will just add that I truly hope no one takes out the idiotocy of the TSA on its employees. That’s like bawling out your waitress because corporate decided that Chili’s will no longer make your favorite dish. Not her fault. Be respectful and file a complaint with corporate, but leave her alone.

    Just my slight addition, said on behalf of my dad, thirty year Air Force veteran who works for TSA and thinks this sucks, but needs the job.

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