What’s so funny about the TSA?

Step right up! / Photo by Comedy Nose - Flickr

To the hundreds of thousands of air travelers who are inconvenienced by their invasive and allegedly unconstitutional screening procedures, the Transportation Security Administration may be nothing to laugh about.

But take a few steps back from the airport spectacle and the agency that likes to see itself as the last line of defense against terrorism is kinda funny.

For example, here’s a list that’s been making the rounds online. I received it several times last week from readers who thought I might find it amusing:

Statistics On Airport Screening From The Department Of Homeland Security

Terrorists Discovered: 0
Transvestites: 133
Hernias: 1,485
Hemorrhoid Cases: 3,172
Enlarged Prostates: 8,249
Breast Implants: 59,350
Natural Blondes: 3

The list also made a crack about Congress that I can’t repeat on this site.

Having a laugh at the TSA’s expense is not without its risks. Last year, during his State of the Union address, the president tried.

“Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail, which could allow you go places in half the time it takes to travel by car,” he said. “For some trips, it will be faster than flying – without the pat-down.”

Civil liberties groups were not impressed.

The president isn’t alone. Just last month, TV personality Geraldo Rivera tried to make a funny on the air at the TSA’s expense.

He bombed, too, for reasons that should be obvious. The TSA may funny, but rape is definitely not funny.

Even the pros fall flat when they try to poke fun of airport security.

South Park couldn’t pull it off with its “Toilet Safety Administration” parody. See for yourself.

Conan O’Brien noted that TSA Chief John Pistole and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano have each personally received a TSA patdown.

“Yeah,” he says. “It’s been called the world’s least sexy threesome.”

Bah-dum dum.

And David Letterman, commenting on the option between a body pat-down or a naked scan, remarked, “I think I speak for everybody when I say, ‘Hey, why can’t we have both?’”

(Rolling eyes.)

If you think those are bad (and they are) wait until you get to the airport. The screeners — who are not professional comedians — crack jokes that are incredibly unfunny. Here’s one transportation security “officer” who thought Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, made for interesting material.

It doesn’t.

Most of the time, when someone says the TSA is a joke, they don’t mean it in a way that is remotely humorous. This 2010 editorial in the Washington Times is a good example. Although the headline declared the agency to be a joke, the story that followed didn’t have any zingers or punchlines.

The headline-writers are correct: Just because the TSA isn’t funny doesn’t mean it’s not a joke.

Take this week’s dustup at Southwest Florida International Airport, where an internal TSA investigation revealed that over a two-month period, 43 workers didn’t perform secondary checks on as many as 400 people after the passengers went through security.

Funny? No. But a joke, nonetheless. Anyone who has watched the TSA in action knows that screeners aren’t consistent and that an internal investigation at any airport would likely reveal the same failures. Southwest Florida just drew the unlucky straw.

How about last week’s Congressional hearing, in which TSA managers were in the hot seat answering questions about being overstaffed by up to 40 percent?

A joke, too.

The reason: Even though Congress will whine about the TSA’s inefficiencies and shortcomings, it will give it what it wants, in the end. It will fund the agency another year, which is exactly what it did last week.

Somewhere inside a well-guarded compound in Pakistan, a career terrorist is probably smiling at this circus we like to call airport security.

Maybe in the end, the real joke is on us.

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 chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • backprop

    Again I go back to the old standby explanation. The TSA was created out of thin air during a still-decent economy.  In order to staff it with thousands of screeners, they had to cast their nets largely into the dregs of society: the barely employable, more often than not high school graduates without many desirable skills.  Who became the face of the TSA then: experts in security at the tops of their fields?  Or shiftless, uneducated people of less than average intelligence? 

    Unlike many, I don’t view TSA screeners as evil or part of a conspiracy.  They are simply people who would otherwise be working at entry-level, service-oriented jobs.  They each made a smart economic decision to work for a government agency with better pay and benefits, but without a greater need for education.  Combined with a badge and a sense of power, they’re simply unable to comprehend or stay within the bounds of their roles, and what ensues is what we see unfolding every day at checkpoints.

  • Raven_Altosk

    The TSA South Park episode (in it’s entirety) is brilliant. In fact, I think one of those women searched me at ATL a few weeks back. She was so over the top and ridiculous I seriously thought she was a cartoon character.

    I think there are tons of problems with the TSA and if using them as the butt of jokes to get the message across works, then so be it.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_BNHJ3GDIBRLDVF45247AJLJFX4 MARVA

    If TSA is such a joke, let’s get rid of it! I wish everybody would quit bitching about the agency. Let’s get out of the problem and get in the solution. Offer suggestions to enhance the quality of the service, after all “we the people” pay for the service to protect us.

  • Rosered7033

    How do we get “out of the problem”? Open to some suggestions, here. There are so many inherent problems with this bloated, inefficient agency that hides behind a curtain of “security”‘, and anyone who questions it becomes a target. Reminds me of the McCarthy era – you should have nothing to hide if you’re not a sympathizer. ?

  • Carchar

    I watched last week’s congressional hearing on C-SPAN. Pistole talked about giving screeners more training to add conversing with passengers to look for psychological hints of terrorism. How much training? The hours added up to about a week! That says it all.

  • frostysnowman

    Agreed – I thought that episode was awesome.

  • Rebecca

    There is an old episode (called “The Entity” if I remember correctly), where the joke is that people would rather have things uncomfortably inserted in more than one place than fly. Neither is even in my top 10 funniest South Parks, but worth checking out.

  • joaneisenstodt

    I know .. it’s all a joke and Pres. Obama may want to revise his humor and thinking: I don’t WANT more patdowns for rail travel. I do think it has to be more secure. Anyone, with a surface to air missle in a golf bag, could board an AMTRAK NE Corridor (or no doubt other route) train and could great damage.  But if they pat me down – even in the airports where CLEAR has come back (badly) – for wearing long skirts one more time, I might say more than I already have said in the airports.

  • backprop

     Why would a person with a surface-to-air missile boarding Amtrak be any more dangerous than, say, a person with a surface-to-air missile driving in a car?

  • Raven_Altosk

    Oh yeah, I remember that one. Garrison invents that painful contraption and everyone says, “Well, it’s better than dealing with the airlines!”


  • ddurica

    Ten years ago two pounds of metal was placed in my left hip.  Hence I get extra screening each trip though security.  In those years I have traveled yearly  at least 75000miles (100K in 2011.)  Never have I personally had the slightest problem or have   witnessed any thing but TSA doing their job.  A little bit of kindness toward them.always has been returned.. Sometime people just have to complain about something.  Sometime the  deadline to blog again find an old horse to beat.  Find fault is easier than being constructive. I enjoy this blog but enough is enough about TSA
    David L Durica MD 

  • cjr001

    It’s either laugh or cry.

  • cjr001

    And if TSA could they’d pull you out of your car and grope you to make sure you’re not hiding any missiles in your pants.

  • cjr001

    Ahh yes, the old “It hasn’t happened to me, therefore it doesn’t happen” canard.

    No, it is never enough about TSA.

  • Extraneededmail

    Again, I trust my fellow passengers 1000% more than any TSA agent. It seems like a week doesn’t go by that we don’t have another story about passengers taking action against someone behaving erratically – this week it was a drunk trying to reach the cockpit to complain that the FA wouldn’t serve him anymore alcohol. The terrorists are sitting in their bunkers plotting other actions against us because they have already fundamentally changed the way we travel and are laughing their butts off at the TSA also.

  • Extraneededmail

    Wonder if this administration counts the TSA as “green” jobs in addition to counting it as creating jobs.

  • Rosered7033

    I am a firm believer in “like begets like”. But my last trip going through Atlanta from Jamaica (I am a white, almost 60 YO woman) left me embarrassed, fuming and confused about why the TSA agent thought it was necessary to pat me down without notifying me, after I went through the enhanced security machine, and then rudely comment, while patting my stomach, that I was “hard” there. Raises my blood pressure again just to think of it. I was so shocked I was speechless, and when I regained my composure, decided I would rather make my flight with my traveling companions than be held aside to explain what had happened. Maybe others’ composure would allow them to respond gracefully and without anger, sarcasm or malice, but at that point in time, I could not.

  • Ann Lamoy

    That’s great that you have never experienced the grope theater that his the TSA. But denying that it happens to a lot of people is just burying your head in the sand. And you are speaking from a big place of privilege-maybe I am presuming something but apart from the metal, I would be willing to bet that you are a white male that would otherwise not set off any flags to security. And as a Dr, you probably dress in a manner that would also not set off any flags either.

    I too am white and dress in a manner that wouldn’t set off any flags normally. I also have enough metal in my ankle and knee that I get special screening. But being female, I routinely get pulled aside for the grope theater that is the TSA special screening, It is, of course, conducted by a female employee. I find it extremely invasive but don’t complain since flying is the only way I would be able to see my family. (they live 3,000 miles across the country).

    So really, try walking a mile in someone elses shoes before you start complaining about other people complaining about their very real issues with the TSA. Granted, there are a number of people that work for the TSA that are 100% professional and do a good job. But there are a bunch of others that are not and do not. And they do not get a free pass from getting complained about.

  • Daizymae

    If you don’t like it, don’t read it. Reading this blog is not a right, it’s a privilege.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Maybe not green but shovel—I mean grope—ready!


  • AUSSIEtraveller

    think the South Park video is hillarious !!!

  • Annapolis2

    You don’t need to board a train to bomb a train.  There are fifty thousand miles of almost uniformly unguarded passenger rail tracks in our country.  On my last long-distance Amtrak trip we were delayed because thieves had stolen the signal wire running alongside the tracks to sell it for cash.  If those criminals had wanted to bomb the train they could have, without ever boarding anywhere.

    Now, let’s have a little less paranoia and a little more common sense.  There are huge vulnerabilities to the big bad boogeyman terrorists in every aspect of your life.  Airport searches don’t keep you safe, and train searches wouldn’t either. There’s still the water supply, bridges, airborne attacks, large public gatherings, and so on.  The fact that with all these amazing targets of opportunity, terrorists are far less likely to kill you than a deer is demonstrates that there just isn’t a big threat out there.

  • Annapolis2

    I really hate TSA jokes.  I hate TSA jokes because they minimize the significance of the spectacle of innocent Americans lining up to be abused like prisoners by filthy perverts in government costumes.   I was sexually assaulted by the TSA, and that’s something I just can’t be lighthearted about.  It’s really painful to me when people giggle at the TSA, though I know they are coming at it from a different place.   When Obama laughed in my face with that horrible joke in his State of the Union address, minimiizing the abuse I suffered, he lost my vote and my support forever.   Obama could singlehandedly end the sexual attacks that continue at airports, but he just doesn’t care about the victims.  TSA jokes are like domestic violence jokes: both reflect very poorly on the jerks who tell jokes like that.

  • Daizymae

    I too was outraged when I heard Obama’s so-called joke. He has lost my vote too because of his protection of TSA and his callous disregard of the pain suffering TSA inflicts on innocent Americans.

    I voted for him because of his vow to end Gitmo. He vehemently stated that “America does not torture.”

    Well, apparently he changed his mind about torture because his administration has declared open war on American citizens with these attacks on the public by TSA.

    On top of the torture inflicted on American citizens by TSA, Obama has now secured the right to murder any American citizen abroad that he decides is a threat plus the right to “detain” (arrest and imprison) indefinitely any American thought to be a threat. (and the torture continues at Gitmo despite Obama’s campaign promises.)

    All this while he actively supports the unPatriotic Act instituted by the Bush administration that stripped us of our constitutional rights in the first place.

    What happened to hope and change?

    Here’s the change: the Bush administration sold us down the river with the institution of the TSA, DHS, and the unPatriotic Act. The Obama administration sunk our life rafts with the digital strip searches, sexual assaults, and general terror unleashed on us by the TSA and seizing the right to imprison or murder us as desired.

    I don’t see the hope.

    So for his next campaign I guess Obama will say something like “America tortures because there is no alternative” or “America tortures and it’s patriotic” (just like the Republicans used to say) and we’re all supposed to cheer and applaud for the government that works so hard to protect us.

    Yes, America does torture, and no, it’s not funny. There’s no hope and we don’t want any more changes like this.

  • Miami510

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    How do we get rid of TSA as it is now?


    Begin a separate division of well-educated, highly trained
    agents… well schooled and experienced in interviewing (as does ElAl Israeli
    security, and run thlem parallel to the current TSA system. 


    Then look at the results and the time per screening in
    each.  Gradually move to the more
    efficient model by hiring in the more successful experience and let the other
    fade by attrition. 


    Story I’ve read: 
    ElAl Airlines and the Israeli tourist department decided to offer a low
    fare, round-trip, vacation package to students in Europe.  A young Italian, who was not a student,
    decided to try to pass as a student and take advantage of the low fare.


    The Israeli security screeners look for subconscious signs
    of nervousness and how a traveler responds to questions… not just the content
    of the answer.  The screener asked
    the young man where he went to school and what his major was.  The kid said he went to the University
    of Rome and was a student of architecture.


    The screener, innocently asked, “Where are all those great
    Palladian villas located?


    The student got flustered and said he didn’t know.  (Something any Italian architecture
    student or art major would know). 
    Immediately the kid confessed to his ruse.


    This story shows the level of education and training that
    was operating. 


    Last week I waited in a TSA cattle line for 46 minutes JUST
    TO GET TO THE TSA INSPECTION procedure…. That’s how time consuming the present
    system is. 


    What we have is security theater.  A few months ago I drove into New York City and got around
    the city in busses, subway trains and taxis.  I could think of five or six ways to bring the city to its
    knees… not one of which was covered by Homeland Security Admin.

  • emanon256

    Last week in Boston at the C terminal there were 3 lines open, each line with 2 baggage x-rays and one central nude-o-scope.  I counted the following:
    3              ticket checkers
    2              people directing people to lines
    3              1 Person at each line telling people empty their pockets
    12           2 people at each x-ray looking at monitors.
    6              2 people, one on each side of the nude-o-scope
    8              people randomly wandering around in the back, telling people to move, and performing pat downs when people opt out.
    That’s 34 people.  Talk about over staffed!  And it seems like the majority of them are just there to collect a paycheck, and maybe get a few kicks yelling at people.  I opt-out every week, and I have had pat downs where they completely ignored my entire groin region, I could have snuck a gun through and they wouldn’t have noticed.  Other weeks they have gone too far to the point where they actually cup my testicles and insert their hand into my rear (Both cases through my cloths).  I have complained about the ladder including the agents name, date, and time, and I always get a form letter response.  I also complained about the agent who refused to let me opt out. Same form letter, and he is still working there.
    And somehow I flew through that airport every week for a few months before I noticed the shampoo bottle that somehow slipped under the lining in my suitcase.  No one said a word.  I also had a medical liquid I had to carry for a while, nice large 16oz bottle.  I took it out of my bag, and had my doctors note ready.  No one ever said a word. I really don’t feel like they are protecting anyone but their own paychecks.

  • Annapolis2

     Thank you for filing your complaints.  The TSA is a disaster on every level, but somehow they keep claiming almost everyone loves them like kittens and rainbows.  We need to step up the pace of serious complaints.