A silent majority sounds off about airport security

Wang Song/Shutterstock
Wang Song/Shutterstock

Intrusive airport searches are just fine with a majority of air travelers. They also think the TSA has singlehandedly prevented a 9/11 repeat, and that critics of the agency’s current practices are nothing more than “anxious advocates.”

At least that’s the impression you might be left with if you read a recent editorial in the Chicago Tribune and other surprisingly favorable mentions in the mainstream media. Even amid the sequestration slowdowns, we’re big fans of the TSA.

Connect the dots, and the conclusion is inescapable: There’s a silent majority of Americans who really do believe the TSA is the “gold standard” in aviation security, as the TSA’s John Pistole recently proclaimed. We’re safer today because of the TSA, and out in flyover country we feel nothing but gratitude toward America’s airport sentries, who are the last line of defense against terrorism.

But if you’re a regular reader of this feature, which tries to hold the TSA accountable to the taxpayers who fund it, you might find those revelations troubling. Because if they are true, then most criticism of the agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems is undeserved, unfair — even unpatriotic.

The complaints about the scans, the pat-downs and the alleged civil rights violations are nothing more than whining by a small group of protesters. After all, hasn’t the TSA protected us?

Can America really feel this way?

But a closer reading of the editorial and a review of a few often forgotten facts suggests otherwise.

Complaining about an “inconvenience”

The Tribune commentary starts with the premise that the “inconvenience” of intrusive searches is “an infinitesimal price to pay for the relentlessly safe flights they enjoy.” But that’s a false premise, say critics.

If you’ve just been given an aggressive pat-down because of a titanium screw in your leg or because you prefer not to undergo a full-body scan, you might beg to differ. It’s more than “inconvenient” when a TSA agent repeatedly knocks your genitals, as the screener at Washington’s Reagan Airport recently did to me. The blueshirt just seemed to be in a hurry, and he clearly didn’t hold an “opt-out” passenger like me in high regard. But the pat-down hurt all the same. I’m not alone.

Also, to credit airport security for the airline industry’s safety record is something of a stretch.

Planes aren’t falling out of the sky because airlines, under the close supervision of the FAA, are sticklers about safety.

The story also labels critics as “complainers” for having the impertinence to take the TSA to task for deploying technology that hasn’t been adequately tested and that shoots x-rays at passengers in order to see through their clothes. It’s a funny way to describe agency-watchers who, as it turned out, had a perfectly legitimate point, since the government agreed with them when it decommissioned the backscatter scanners.

The Tribune then quotes a TSA spokesman saying something the agency has claimed for a while now, which is that it’s moving away from a “one size fits all” model.

“That said,” the commentary adds, “we can’t stress too much that the whole point of airport security is to enhance the flying experience not by pampering travelers, but by keeping flights safe from saboteurs.”

That’s an interesting thing to say, actually. Because there’s a whole list of special exceptions to the TSA’s regular screening, including dignitaries, members of congress, active duty military, pilots, families with young kids, and frequent fliers. If these groups aren’t “pampered,” then you can at least forgive us for feeling that way.

“So the next time you hear someone carp about TSA procedures, ask him or her how many times the agency, formed 70 days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has failed at that mission,” the editorial concludes.

That, too, is an odd thing to say. Because the TSA hasn’t apprehended a single terrorist with its famous 20 layers of security.

And the logic of claiming that because there’s been no 9/11 rerun, the TSA has been successful, is a 21st century version of Russell’s Teapot. Or, as my colleague Lisa Simeone would put it, it’s like saying you’ve applied giraffe repellent to your front lawn and then claiming it worked because it’s prevented a giraffe infestation.

Yes, terrorists have been stopped, but neither the underwear bomber nor the shoe bomber were apprehended by the TSA. They were stopped by alert passengers.

For members of the loyal opposition, being tarred as complainers and whiners may be discouraging. But the dissidents who will continue to criticize the TSA are used to it. They have thick skins.

Is opposing the TSA unpatriotic?

More problematic is that the Tribune’s editorial, and others like it, suggests that since mainstream America agrees the TSA is more or less fine just the way it is, then the complainers are … well, complainers.

Two recent surveys underscore that conclusion. One finds that a majority of Americans think the TSA is doing a good job (never mind that half of those polled admitted never having flown). Another says a majority of travelers would support prison-style cavity searches at the airport, if necessary. (Note: Here’s a link to the document with those Harris Poll survey results.)

Opponents of the TSA’s current screening practices shouldn’t be angry at the Tribune, which is just carrying a message from mainstream America. Instead, maybe they should start worrying about the hearts and minds of the average travelers, who, for reasons they can’t comprehend, are fans of the TSA.

If they only knew the TSA the way the rest of us do.

Do you support the TSA's current screening practices?

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Note: We have a great team of volunteer moderators who make sure the comments don’t get out of hand. Please make their jobs easier by sticking to the topic and refraining from personal attacks. We read each comment carefully, so only flag a comment if you are reasonably certain we’ve overlooked something. Thank you.

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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  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    Actually, apologies, PsyGuy. Methinks you’re actually a brilliant Stealth Parody Troll, and I fell for it. I admit it. Sorry.

    You have to understand that because people do, in fact, say things very close to what you wrote in all earnestness, not in parody, I bought it. It’s getting impossible to recognize parody or sarcasm anymore because people profess the most outrageous things and actually believe them (not to mention sarcasm is a big no-no at this blog and likely to get you flagged, chastised like a 2nd grader, and banned).

    Edited to add: As you’ll see, if this comment and this little exchange are allowed to stay up, I’ve already been flagged and chastised.

    Edited again to add: Uh-oh, turns out PsyGuy isn’t stealth trolling. He actually means what he says. He’d actually be okay with strip searches, etc. to get on a plane. Oh, well. This is why this country is on the skids.

  • Grant Ritchie

    Note: We have a great team of volunteer moderators who make sure the comments don’t get out of hand. Please make their jobs easier by sticking to the topic and refraining from personal attacks.

  • Grant Ritchie

    Note: We have a great team of volunteer moderators who make sure the comments don’t get out of hand. Please make their jobs easier by sticking to the topic and refraining from personal attacks.

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    I agree with Daisimae’s posts on this: you guys need to spell out what is and is not acceptable.

    Since mere sarcasm — a venerable tradition that goes from Aristophanes to Molière to Mark Twain — apparently isn’t acceptable and, moreover, gets falsely labeled as an “attack,” then it’s up to the moderators to tell us what you will allow us to say and what you won’t.

    But don’t be surprised if people gradually drift away. Speech includes cracking jokes, being (gasp!) snarky, ribbing each other, pointing out inconsistencies and logical fallacies in people’s arguments. I’m not a hothouse flower who’s going to wilt when somebody calls me a naughty name. I would never flag someone for that (or anything else). I consider such flagging and running to the moderators to be incredibly immature.

    But clearly I’m in the minority. So if you guys want this blog to be a certain way, perhaps it would be helpful if you would spell it out instead of chiding us as if we’re in kindergarten.

  • Susan Richart

    No one is being forced to read Christopher’s blogs or to comment on them.

    If what others write offends, then don’t read it!

  • cjr001

    Edit: I guess I didn’t find the above post to be very good parody either.

  • Daisiemae

    I really can’t see the attack here. It’s simply a paraphrase of what the OP said himself.

    Again, specific rules will help you clarify your position and avoid the appearance of arbitrary reprimands.

    I’m actually wondering why the moderators here are so severe on the TSA threads but allow all kinds of nasty ugly remarks on all the other threads. Maybe you could clarify that? Are there separate rules for the TSA thread and all the other threads? It makes it appear that the moderators have a personal vendetta. I’m sure that’s not the case, but it’s coming across that way.

  • Annapolis2
  • Jonathan Point

    At the end of the day, everyone should question the unnecessary delays and invasions of privacy. To be honest, as an Australian, it’s a bit weird that the TSA previously allowed box-cutters on planes. Box cutters? Puuuuulease!

    So, due to their inability to prevent 9/11, the Feds do this. My assumption is that the manufacturers of security equipment are behind most of it (look at which companies funded which representatives…).

    In Australia, we generally have only “random searches”. As a professional engineer that often travels with no checked baggage, I should have an easy time, but wait – I have longer hair than some do i.e. a ponytail. This means that wherever I go, am the one person singled out for bomb and explosives checks.

    When in China though, the service is very good. I have been asked to open a bag one time, as it was full of electronic samples. No less than 3 employees helped me to unpack and then re-pack the bag. I was accidentally ‘touched’ by a customs officer, and they wanted to do a full report on it, but I just smiled and said it was an honest mistake (the poor girl barely came up to my shoulder).

    9/11 won’t happen again, because the terrorists have realised that they cannot change people’s minds by killing their relatives.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    Why is it “BS?” People have been carrying knives on board the entire history of commercial flight, including the past 12 years. Hockey sticks aren’t any more of a threat (and a lot more obvious) than a laptop or hardback book.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    The TSA is abhorred by people across the political spectrum. The TSA is also beloved by people across the political spectrum. This is a non-partisan issue.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    I understand, Alan. That was TSA’s plan all along. Make the body searches so horrible and invasive that people would “gladly” accept the naked scanners.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    What’s really sad is the number of things they found is just a tiny fraction of things that went through checkpoints, which means most of them made it through.

  • robmoore

    I am 58 and have flown a lot. In my youth, it was to visit family in England as well as separated family in the U.S. After college, I began traveling in 1982 for work and have continued that pattern since so I have seen the enormous changes that have occurred over the years.

    People assume that bombing and terrorist threats started around 9/11, but they did not. There have been bombings on passenger planes since at least the 1950s. Indeed, more passengers were killed in airliner bombings before 9/11 than were killed aboard the hijacked airliners on 9/11. An epidemic of hijacking in the late 1960s and the 1970s, led to metal detectors and scanning of carry-on luggage and even to sky marshals for a time. The hijacking epidemic declined but at least two jumbo jets were brought down by luggage bombs after that (Air India flying out of Montreal and Pan Am flight 103). Both of these incidents were horrible and led to changes in security both in the U.S. and other countries but without additional passenger-facing changes.

    9/11 brought birthed the behemoth Department of Homeland Security which took over airport security in the U.S. with the formation of the Transportation Security Administration. I was dubious from day one. The security checks implemented immediately after 9/11 would not have prevented 9/11. The T.S.A. points to the lack of a repeat as a sign of its success, but the truth is, I don’t think T.S.A. has prevented anything other than simple hijackings and luggage bombs, both of which were already largely under control before then. It has reacted to attempts after the fact, but there is no evidence anything has been prevented that would not have been prevented before it existed. There has been no other attack since 9/11 because it took years to plan and execute that attack and because we have been far more aggressive with law enforcement efforts to break up these conspiracies before they can harvest the fruit of those conspiracies.

    MeanMeosh is really onto something when he claims the “silent majority” does not so much approve of TSA methods as fear the repercussions of challenging them at the airport. I realise the jobs are largely boring, but I have witnessed so many instances of needless rudeness and outright intimidation. When I travel with my wife, I always allow at least an additional hour for the simple reason that I know she will be searched above and beyond the typical empty-your-pockets-take-off-jewelry-and-shoes. First of all, her purse is a catch-all and is she always misses something that raises an eyebrow. Second of all, she is a sweet person who gets tough when confronted by the pressure of flight schedules and intrusion into her personal space. It would be amusing to watch the TSA try to confront my late-fifties spouse and expect her to be meek.

    I’m a simpler traveler. I don’t carry a purse that often has enough coins in the bottom to make a mortgage payment. This brings me to my other point.

    Knives, box cutters, shampoo bottles, etc. are not the threat. Have any of you ever swung a laptop bag. It’s heavy and would be more than adequate to cause grievous bodily harm. Three ounce bottles can contain all sort of liquids that separately would not be detectable as threats, but when mixed can cause a lethal problem from poisonous vapours flowing through the airplane’s air system including the cockpit to corrosive liquids that could be strategically applied to damage critical airliner systems such as electronic cables. TSA will not prevent this from happening until it has happened at least once.

    In the meantime, air travel has become inconvenient, uncomfortable, and increasingly expensive. Simply removing luggage check fees or some sort of penalty to oversized carry-on luggage would improve the experience, but TSA has added to the discomfort without any evidence of providing real value for its enormous cost.

  • CatBallou

    “Seem to let their hatred of the TSA dominate their waking hours?” Exaggerate much? This is a discussion of the TSA, not of how we all spend our time. Please stick to the topic.

  • CatBallou

    The list of those items is arbitrary and ridiculous. I can take 12-inch knitting needles on a plane. The prohibition on liquids by volume is pointless and easily circumvented, and is actually in response to a liquid-explosives plan that would never have worked. We all know that the list is meaningless, but by god don’t carry a bottle of water on board!

  • CatBallou

    You have just perfectly described living in a police state. And ironically, you don’t get the benefit of increased security–you only get the oppression!
    [Edited to add: Ooh, I hope this is sarcasm! But since no one on the thread seems to be supporting the TSA, I don’t know who your audience would be.]

  • http://www.facebook.com/scott.mcgraw.37 Scott McGraw

    mainstream america are not the frequent fliers complaining about the issues with the TSA. IMO, the majority of those who oppose the TSA are frequent travelers. ‘Most of America’ are not frequent travelers.

  • http://www.facebook.com/scott.mcgraw.37 Scott McGraw

    Did you know when you get a patdown you have the option to have someone of your choice witness the patdown, I want to request John Kerry or Hilary Clinton next time.

  • Poley King

    Just because someone owns a gun it does not make them a terrorist or a potential terrorist.BTW the gun was found by technology that’s been around long before TSA

  • Poley King

    Infrequent travelers wouldn’t know the difference between AIT and a metal detector

  • TSA-Loonies

    Oh Poley. Don’t cloud the subject with meaningless facts. It only causes the pro-TSA-loonies to go crazy. ;)

  • EdB

    Geesh. Disqus is really messing up. I only now got notice of this post some 4 months after it was made. (Either that or Disqus has really messed up the time on Suzy’s reply as I see she just made some other recent replies)

    “I don’t have any problems with the TSA practises.”

    No problem with their practice of theft or not even following their own procedures? Making up rules as they go? Confiscating legal items items claiming they are illegal?

    Do you also not have problems with people breaking into your house or car? Robbing banks? Abuse by the police under color of authority? If you don’t have problems with the first, why should you have any problems with the later?