The last time the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) told me to put my hands up, I put my hands up. I was in their privacy-invading machine at the airport, showing my naked form to some anonymous person in an undisclosed location. What I wanted to do was refuse this invasion, or at least protest, but I didn’t dare. After all, we Americans have willingly ceded both power and privacy to authorities that have vague and ominous control over our lives. To refuse meant to be detained. To refuse meant to be suspected and accused of having something to hide other than the body that used to belong to me. To refuse meant that I wouldn’t be going to the funeral I needed to attend. So I put up and shut up.
Recently, I was talking to a visiting professor from Germany who, innocently enough, didn’t shut up. I’ll call him Martin. Martin was ready to board a flight in Memphis, but the flight was cancelled due to bad weather in his connecting city. He left the gate area and headed back to the un-secured part of the airport. Almost immediately, the passengers were summoned back to the gate. Martin turned around and re-entered the security line. As a TSA official was supervising the emptying of his pockets, Martin commented, “You already checked my bags five minutes ago.” The official looked at him sharply and said, “Follow me.” He pulled Martin out of line and slowly went through every item—unfolding every paper—in his bags.
Then, Martin’s flight was re-routed through a different connecting city. As he was going through security in that city, another TSA agent pulled him out of line and said he had been singled out for a personal screening. Again, Martin went through the same procedure of scrutinizing everything in his bags. “I asked her if I had really been singled out or if they [the TSA in Memphis] called ahead. The smile on her face told me everything I needed to know.”
Welcome to post 9/11 America—a place where we’ve given up our rights, and allowed minor officials to harass citizens and foreign visitors alike. Who would risk confronting the TSA? Who knows what the consequence would be? Would the confronter then be placed on the no-fly list? Undergo continuing surveillance as a potential terrorist? Be forbidden to leave the country? Who is willing to take his chances? Instead, we step into the machine and bare all.
A friend of mine recently said, “I gladly give up a little bit of my rights in order to have more security. I even thank the TSA employee for doing his job.” What is Martin’s experience with that? He said, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve passed through security with a water bottle. I’m always sticking a half-finished bottle in a bag and forgetting it’s there and security doesn’t even notice.” This example doesn’t even address questions such as, Can enough explosive be placed in the mandated 3-ounce bottle to blow up an airplane? So we’re giving up actual rights—say against unreasonable searches and seizures, or to privacy—in exchange for the illusion of security. Now that we’ve given up rights, where does it stop? And how do we get them back?
My friend also asked me, “What would you do to make airports safer, instead of security checks? What’s the alternative?”
I’d get out of the Middle East fast enough to make a Congressman’s head spin. I’d stop playing imperialist dominator and ‘nation-maker’ and, thus, take away the motivation for terrorist strikes. I’d make America a place less likely to intimidate and terrify its travelers.
I’d preserve democracy—with all its rights intact.