Good and evil at the TSA — and what to do about it

After a preposterously positive TSA screening experience before my flight from Hilo, Hawaii, to Maui last week, I get it. I know why the agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems has a few fans — and an apologist or two.

The agents greeted my family with warm smiles at the screening area, asked my kids how they liked Hawaii, and then pointed us toward an empty conveyor belt. Hilo has what I like to call a “gotcha” screening setup, similar to the kind found at National Airport in Washington: you step through the magnetometer and then directly into one of those controversial full-body scanners.

If you want to opt out, you either have to make the decision before the screening process begins, or you’ll be microwaved.

The Hilo TSA agents were incredibly helpful and friendly, and they opened a second screening line — the one without the full-body scanner — for the whole family to walk through. They were patient. They even laughed at my son’s jokes.

Absurd as it may sound, the fact that I’m traveling with three young children apparently makes me less of a security risk. TSA doesn’t need me to go through a full-body scanner. But without kids, it’s either the machine or an “enhanced” pat-down.

So when I hear from travelers like Rose Yoakum who tell me about their horrific experiences with TSA screenings, I have some difficulty believing we’re talking about the same agency. Yoakum’s tale is dreadful in every way.

Flying out of Las Vegas a few weeks ago, she got into a disagreement with an agent over her carry-on liquids. Although she was polite, explaining that she had meant to check in the liquids, the screener took a different approach.

“The agent was like an in-your-face drill sergeant,” she says. “He was screaming orders at me continually, trying to humiliate me. It was demeaning.”

Instead of allowing her to go back and check her liquids, the agent “forced” Yoakum to remove the contents of her bag in plain view of the other passengers. Then another agent instructed her to throw all of her cosmetics away before she could pass through security. She says she was reduced to tears.

“There is no reason for this at all,” she told me.

She’s right; there’s no reason any screening should go like that. Ever.

Now just to be clear, it’s unreasonable to expect every TSA screener to take a personal interest in your family and make them feel like they’re waiting in line at the Magic Kingdom.

But drill sergeant? No.

You’re probably thinking I exagerrated when I referred to the TSA’s misdeeds as evil in my headline. But I wasn’t thinking of Yoakum’s trip through boot camp hell. I was thinking of the latest case against a TSA agent accused of raping a child, which is one of the purest forms of evil in the universe (see video, below).

How can an agency be so good … and yet so evil?

Some of you may think it’s naive, even unpatriotic, to be asking a question like that. After all, isn’t there good and bad in any large organization? And isn’t the TSA’s job so important that we shouldn’t second-guess what it does, at the risk of giving comfort to our enemies?

Respectfully, that’s nonsense. We have the right to a consistent screening experience by an organization of professionals, not by pedophiles and rapists. Hyperbole? Hardly. As my colleague at TSA News Blog, Lisa Simeone, noted, these incidents are so common, we could use a template to write them.

Anyone who thinks that questioning authority is unpatriotic, as some of my readers and colleagues have done from time to time, should familiarize themselves with the principles on which our country was founded. The right to speak your mind and to question authority is part of our heritage. To ask “why?” is the most patriotic thing I know to do.

You should try it sometime.

Speaking of America, we are about to elect a president, and whoever wins, one thing is clear: It’s business as usual for the TSA, a sprawling organization that many would argue has done as much harm as good to the people it’s supposed to protect.

It’s time to send a message to the newly elected president: We won’t take any more of the false choices and mission creep the TSA has confronted us with. We want reform, and we want it now.

Maybe the best way to do that is to opt out of the full-body scan en masse, which would force agents to conduct a time-consuming pat-down. Joining National Opt-Out Week is a good start, but personally, I believe every day you travel should be opt-out day.

It’s the only way to restore dignity to airport security and to ensure that the TSA is more good than evil.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • EdB

    “isn’t there good and bad in any large organization?”

    Yes. There is good and bad in any large organization. The difference between the TSA and other large organizations is “accountability”. If you hired another large organization to do the same job the TSA is doing and they didn’t have the immunity from prosecution like the TSA has, they wouldn’t last very long in that role before the courts shut them down.

  • TSAisTerrorism

    Speaking of good and evil actors in large organizations, let’s talk about the Walt Disney Company for a moment, and specifically their Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, FL. You see, there are at least as many employees in that organization’s one division/location as there are in the entire TSA. Wrap your head around that for a minute.

    And now think of all of the pedophiles, rapists, and screaming, surly, downright nasty employees you hear about there. Yeah, there are none. Zero. Zip. Nada.

    TSA’s “one-offs” aren’t one-offs at all. They are evil to the core.


  • EdB

    Well, the Disney organization is not perfect, but at least they do try. Unlike the TSA. When there is an issue at Disney, that truly is a “one-off”.

  • Jeff Kolker

    Maybe everyone is happier because they live in Hawaii? I joke… somewhat. I think a lot of it depends on location. I fly out of Tulsa, and have yet to have a problem, nor have I heard of anyone who has had a problem at our airport. One time I had an office promotional pocket knife in my coat pocket, a giveaway that had been in that pocket probably for a year. The agent found it, took it out, asked if I wanted to keep it, pointed out where to mail it to myself if I did. Since they were giveaways and had more at my office, I told him no, but thanked him anyway.

    I have seen instances of outright rudeness at other airports. Houston comes to mind. Location specific? Maybe….

  • Tom Brollini

    “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty or safety!” (Ben Franklin)

    As I’ve said many times before old Ben had it right. NEVER give in to tyranny & the TSA is a tyrannical, unconstitutional, infringement on our rights.

    I fight them every time I fly when they do more than just have me a walk thru the metal detector. I’m not nice about it either & have faced down & dressed down numerous TSA (read GESTAPO) so called agents. They will back down.

    I put 26+ years in the military, protecting this country & it’s constitution, & I’ll be damned if I’ll let this go unchallenged.

    Stand up to this out of control government!

  • Guest

    How many Walt Disney World employees have been arrested for rape? That’s Walt Disney World employees, not “Disney organization” employees.

    I’ll answer that for you: none. Try reading the entire post for context next time, not just the words you recognize.

  • EdB

    Excuse me. I think you need to go back and read the entire post again. The question was, and I quote, “And now think of all of the pedophiles, rapists, and screaming, surly, downright nasty employees you hear about there.” Notice the comment mentions more than “rape”. My comment addressed more of the “screaming, surly, downright nasty employees” you hear about there.

    And how about coming out from behind the anonymous posting. It’s interesting to note that the email notification I got about Guest’s reply is attributes it to the original poster. Seems there was a glitch somewhere in the system. So was that response really from you TSAisTerrorism?

  • Retired_vet

    TSA is neither good nor evil. There are people who are at war with us and some wish to, some have and a few have already used our transportation system as weapons. Disney is not at war but I bet they have a security system that’s very efficient but unseen. It’s also probably very expensive and their security employees are probably very well paid. How much do you think a government TSA employee is paid and would you do the job. And yes, it’s a job that needs to be done when one is at war. Try El Al if you want to see security. Rude; sometimes. Time consuming; yes. Inconvenient; sometimes. efficient; always. We are at war, help them do their job. I’m a Vietnam war vet and I didn’t like that either but it’s the cost of war. Maybe someday we, as a human family, will mature and stop killing each other over the earth that we’ll be buried in. We might begin by trying to understand others a but more that we do.

  • Lonnie

    The problem is less with the TSA alone, than it is with the concept of “protecting ourselves against terrorism”. The TSA is just a symptom.

    We have allowed ourselves to become so afraid of terrorists that we have seemingly given up our most sacred freedom: the freedom to speak out publicly. In the past, we were free to chat informally in public, make jokes, question authority, without the fear of punishment. Now, because of the TSA and other governmental organizations which are supposedly “protecting” us, we fear to do so.

    From repercussions such as being subject to an enhanced pat-down to being permanently banned from flying by being placed on the “no-fly” list, we’d rather remain meekly in line than object to the actions of the TSA.

    We are subject to constant surveillance by video cameras, by eavesdropping on our phone conversations – with or without a warrant – and by e-mail/Twitter/FaceBook monitoring. All in the name of protecting ourselves from terrorists. And we remain silent.

    Somehow, we have lost our sense of individual strength and the ability to take care of ourselves. By accepting this intrusion on our very essence as a nation, we enable the “TSAs” to carry out their missions – albeit poorly – without moderation or control. This is really not unlike the fear good people had in World War II when they feared to speak out against wrongs. If no one speaks out, where will we be?

    It’s up to us to do whatever is necessary to regain control of our person freedom. With that will come a more moderate, and wiser, TSA, as well as government itself.

    And I’m afraid I have no real answer to this underlying problem.

  • cjr001

    “So when I hear from travelers like Rose Yoakum who tell me about their
    horrific experiences with TSA screenings, I have some difficulty
    believing we’re talking about the same agency.”

    I’m not sure why it’s so difficult. As but one example: this country has
    cities like Denver, and then it has cities like Detroit.

  • EdB

    Oh. And as a follow-up on how many Walt Disney World employees have been arrested for rape….

    There is one. He was arrested and was a Walt Disney World employee.

    Another story of a Disney Employee arrested in a child sex sting…

    Opps. Here’s another arrest for rape…

    So even at places like Walt Disney World, you still have problems with these types.

  • Nigel Appleby

    I think the judges. the courts in general and specially politicians with the authority to rein in TSA and CATSA in Canada,are terrified of doing so.
    Because if something happened which TSA could claim wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t been reined in, the judge or polictician would be held responsible.
    No judge or politician wants to be in a position of being held reponsible.

  • Jeff Kolker

    Obviously, you have had bad experiences. Sorry about that. However, I, nor my wife, have had any such experience. Sure, the security lines are a pain, not sure how effective it truly is, and all that. But as a relatively frequent fliers, I have found the staff at Tulsa Intl to fairly cordial.

    Maybe us Okies are more friendly than some ;) Or less evil. Anyway, I base my statements on my own experiences.

  • Extramail

    I absolutely could not agree more. And, so well said. The terrorists have won because we are as terrified of simply getting on an airplane as we are of the possibility that there might be an incident while on board. I think we have more proof that our fellow passengers will stand up for themselves if confronted than we do that the TSA has stopped a planned attack. And, that started with the passengers on the plane that went down in Shanksville.

  • Sommer Gentry

    I must admit that I also had a positive TSA experience recently, traveling with a torn knee ligament that made it impossible for me to stand or walk without crutches. The TSA opened a walk-through metal detector for me, even though they were sending every other traveler through the body scanner, and gave me plastic canes to use as crutches to get through the metal detector until I could reach my crutches again on the other side. I avoided being flagged for a patdown, which I would never and will never allow because I don’t engage in sexual activities with strangers. I had a backup plan to get home if the TSA threatened to molest me.

    Note to body scanner avoiders – in addition to the exemption for children that Chris has described above, there should be an option offered to use the metal detector if you can not assume the position required for the body scanner due to a medical issue, like a torn rotator cuff that prevents you from raising your arms over your head. As with all TSA policies, this varies by checkpoint and the mood / training / sadism / hostility of the person in the blue shirt.

    Still, even though some people sometimes have good experiences, the fact remains that the TSA claims the explicit right to force you to allow low-wage strangers to sexually fondle you and your minor children. This is so wrong, such an enormous red flag of monstrous abuse, that any other policy change or charm offensive on the part of TSA is irrelevant. Who cares whether they smile at you? They put their hands on a fourteen year old girl’s labia! Who cares whether they helped you lift your bag? They grabbed a Congressman’s testicles! These things aren’t even measurable on the same scale of humanity. Forcing unwelcome sexual touching on innocent travelers cancels out anything positive the TSA could ever do or will ever do. Until the patdowns stop, the TSA is evil and anyone who works for them is a facilitator and apologist for sexual assault.

  • Jeff Kolker

    You said they are all evil. I am just trying to say there are some decent folks working there. I know bad things happen. It is obvious bad things happen. However, bad things happening doesn’t mean they everyone is bad. Your blanket statements show your bias. I personally recognize the good as well as the bad. The bad should be punished and removed. The good their job.

    NEVER did I say it didn’t happen. You need to read better. Perhaps your apparent blinding hated for the TSA has closed your eyes a bit. I am not a TSA fan either. But I don’t use such blanket statements to cover any group of people.

  • streamerstoo

    I really do not understand why all the groping, sexual touching is NOT illegal. It would be if it happened anywhere else. It seems they have a license to abuse travelers. To me, that should be a crime! Yet it still continues even with all the media attention. Why?

  • Frank Ney

    Because any local charge of sexual assault/battery or rape will be removed to federal court, where it will be dismissed as “done in accordance to policy as a part of the freedom fluffer’s scope of employment.”

  • Frank Ney


  • Leslie Bonner

    As someone who travels only a few times a year I fortunately haven’t run into TSA agents with bad behavior. Just a couple of weeks ago I was singled out for a pat down and I thought the agent (female as am I) was very gentle. Of course I tend to be polite and follow instructions.

  • Daisiemae

    The problem is that their job is inherently evil. Forcing innocent people to pose for nude photos, exposing innocent people to dangerous radiation, and forcing innocent people to be touched in their most intimate body parts is evil in and of itself.

    Simply by being an employee of an organization with those stated missions makes that employee complicit and guilty of those actions. It doesn’t matter how nice that employee is, that employee is still guilty by association of committing those obscene and unAmerican acts propagated by their employer.

    TSA has stated over and over again that employees committing these acts are “following proper procedure.” Abusing innocent passengers is in the screener’s job description. By accepting that job, the screener is part and parcel of the abuse…whether the screener likes it or not…whether the screener performs the job correctly or not. By accepting the job, the screener is enabling TSA to continue to abuse innocent passengers whether or not the individual screener actually abuses anyone himself/herself.

    So yes, TSA is evil to the core, and yes, they are all evil.

  • Daisiemae

    That is the very reason we no longer fly. We cannot fight back. We are fragile and have disabilities and cannot risk being abused and injured by these monsters.

  • Daisiemae

    Amen, sister!

  • Daisiemae

    Untold numbers of polite and reasonable people have been abused by TSA. Numerous internet videos attest to this fact. Being polite and following instructions has never been an effective defense against predators.

    That’s on a par with saying “I have never been raped on a subway platform. Of course, I tend to be polite and follow instructions.” Or “I’ve never been robbed on the street. Of course, I tend to be polite and follow instructions.” Or “I’ve never been baked in an oven in Auschwitz. Of course, I tend to be polite and follow instructions.”

    Repeat: Being polite and following instructions has never been an effective defense against predators.

  • pauletteb

    Oh, please! Anyone in this day and age who “forgets” liquids in her carry-on deserves to be “demeaned”!

  • pauletteb

    At least get the quote right!

  • pauletteb

    You are so off the wall it’s hysterical! I’d hate to be behind you in a checkout line if something didn’t scan correctly.

  • TestJeff Pierce

    Because the local law enforcement are instructed not to arrest TSA employees who violate the state laws against unwanted touching of genitals, breasts, and buttocks. Although it is illegal, they are told the Federal law authorizing the TSA to conduct passenger screening gives the TSA the lega federal authority to conduct whatever they want to do.

    Quite frankly, inserting objects in our orifices – women and men and children – would be legal. The TSA argued the right, in court in EPIC vs DHS, to perform physical strip searches on passengers if they wanted to.

    The Supreme Court overturned a Sheriff who had visitors to prisoners strip searched…so, maybe, there is hope that airports will have the same protection of our rights that we have at jails.

  • TestJeff Pierce

    In other words, they would all throw the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in the toilet rather than stand up for it. I think that is the clarification needed here.

    In short, they are not in favor of American values and liberties.

    I would say Freedom To Travel USA has worked with some legislators who ARE willing to stand up for our country. Just not enough….yet.

  • DavidYoung2

    Yes there is good and bad in every large organization. Funny Tom the original commenter should mention Semper Fi. Isn’t that a US Marine going on trial today for a drunken rampage in which he (allegedly) slaughtered 14 innocent Afghan civilians? Oh, sorry, it was 16. My mistake.

    Bringing up the TSA child molester is simply trying to impugn an entire group based on the actions of one person. So are every man and women in our armed forces psychotic murderers? That seems to be the analogy being drawn here.

    So yes, even in the most ‘professional’ organization, there are good and bad, and some exceptional and some monsters. If anybody expects otherwise, they are sadly delusional.

  • DavidYoung2

    Gee, you ‘fight them every time’ and you’re “not nice about it.” You brag about ‘facing down’ and ‘dressing down’ other Americans who are just doing their jobs. You sound like a wonderful person.

    After having to deal with a people like you every shift, I’m just SHOCKED that the TSA workers aren’t overly friendly to every traveller.

  • Flipper

    When it comes to the safety risk of the Millimeter Wave scanners… puh-lease. Cars with the “adaptive cruise control” feature use the same frequency range to measure the speed of the car in front so that they can match the speed. If you’re driving down the freeway, and a Prius, or some luxury car is pacing behind you like it was driven by a computer…. it probably is. And it uses a Millimeter Wave radar to do that.

    Also, police radar in the Ka band now runs at about 34 GHz, which is well within the Millimeter Wave range. Every time your radar detecter beeps, you might be getting a Millimeter Wave exposure. Yes, police radar does not form an image like an airport scanner does, but the health risks of Millimeter Wave exposure are the same.

    This does not change any health risk assessment for the X-ray (blue box) scanners, which use ionizing radiation.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Flipper, just for the record, many people choose to opt out of the MMW scanner not because of any health risk, but because they consider it an inappropriate (and in the case of our children, ILLEGAL) intrusion to have government workers looking at our naked bodies.

    Also just for the record, my particular issue is not with the scanners, as my closest airport doesn’t have scanners, only the metal detectors. Which means I’m subjected to a sexual assault EVERY TIME I FLY due to the metal parts in my spine. Frankly I’m sick and tired of having strangers stick their hands between my legs and rub my boobs just so I can fly to see my family.

  • Sommer Gentry

    Low-wage employees are grabbing your boobs and shoving their hands down your pants in the checkout line? Where on earth do you shop?

  • Sommer Gentry

    My issue with all the scanners is that they create nude images of my body. I’m not the TSA’s porn star, and I’d appreciate it if they’d stop trying to undress me with their technology. My body is my own. I don’t provide open access to my sex organs so strangers can look and feel.

    Although the MMW do have the “privacy filter” installed, the machines still create nude images – the TSA just promises not to look. Since they’ve been caught in their lies before, (for example, stating that the images could not be saved or transmitted when their own procurement documents required internal memory for storing images and USB and networking connections for transferring images), I don’t trust them.

  • jebaker

    Chris, I am glad you had a good experience with the TSA. I also have had some more positive experiences. These are offset with the drama and treatment I have had on other occasions. I have noticed that in Chicago they have switched out some of the xray machines for the millimeter so they are recognizing that there is risk in the technology. I am opposed to being exposed to dangerous radiation as a cancer survivor but also cannot reach my one arm over my head so cannot go thru them regardless. This is a very stress process for passengers and strangely enough can be circumvented by going and finding a line where the machine is temporarily shut down and therefore just going thru the metal detector. If I have figured this out, so has anyone with evil on their mind.

  • Fly, Icarus, Fly

    LeeAnne, I was with you until the very last line. Why make it personal? I like that you have a strong opinion as it makes those of us who don’t have much of one on this issue take a second look (which your comments have done for me). Passion adds value to a comment, but it’s a fact that others may not share the same view, and solid logic will go way further in changing someone’s mind. Just my personal $0.02!

  • LeeAnneClark

    Hmmm…I guess I’m not seeing where I got personal? Where did I get personal? Did I mention the person at all? What I said was that his “argument” is the fallacy trifecta. A “trifecta” means either the first three winners of the race, or in show business, winning an Oscar, an platinum record, and a hit TV series. It’s the top three prizes. My point was simply that the fallacies in his argument are the top three fallacies when people defend the TSA.

    If you can point out to me where I got personal, I would very much appreciate it. I do make a concerted effort to stick to Christopher’s rules of avoiding ad hominem attacks…until someone starts attacking ME personally, and then all bets are off. ;-)

  • calbff

    You don’t even realize it, but your post exemplifies the disturbing TSA attitude everybody is complaining about. Turn the finger back at yourself.

  • guest233

    If Americans don’t stop the insanity of TSA NOW..then it will only become worse. There is absolutely no excuse for Americans to be treated with such disregard and with utter contempt simply because they are flying.I read of the men who after suffering Tsa patdowns are in pain hours after an agent gropes and crushes their ‘junk’. I read of the trauma from women after an agent not only fondles them in places they have no business touching but are now making skin contact ‘intruding’ upon that which makes it a body cavity search.Can you imagine if you had a teen daughter and you overheard TSA agents making crude and obscene remarks about her body and how much they were looking forward to ‘the patdown procedure’? And in the process they turn to you, the parent and demand you move on and leave your daughter to them?! It happened.And these agents got away with it! America..have you lost your moral compass to ALLOW SUCH THINGS?!