Are we traveling in a police state?

By | March 6th, 2011

As she waited for her flight from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to Medford, Ore., last month, Linda Morrison noticed something unusual in the waiting area.

“A lady in a TSA uniform came over, put on her rubber gloves and went up and down the rows of seats, choosing bags to go through,” remembered Morrison, a retired corporate recruiter who lives in Seattle. “She didn’t identify herself, didn’t give a reason for the search. She seemed to be targeting larger carry-on bags.”

Morrison was stunned. She expected to be screened at the designated checkpoint area, or maybe at the gate, where the TSA sometimes randomly checks passengers as they board. But this was different. “To me, it just felt like an illegal search performed by a police state,” she said.

There’s that phrase again: police state. It’s being thrown about a lot more since November’s pat-down/opt-out fiasco, as public anger over the TSA’s new security measures remains high. Which makes the question of whether we’re traveling in a police state, or something like it, worth taking seriously.

At least one other reader also reported the roaming searches described by Morrison, also in Seattle. Christine Porter says she witnessed an identical procedure on two separate occasions. “TSA now randomly appears at boarding gates to check boarding passes and IDs as well as potentially hand-search carry-on luggage,” she said. “It’s irritating.”

Is the TSA testing some new, more aggressive screening procedure in Seattle? I asked the agency.


“TSA officers at airports nationwide routinely screen passengers at the gate area using a variety of methods, including physically searching bags and using explosives detection technology,” said agency spokesman Greg Soule. “This additional layer of security is part of our unpredictable approach to keep passengers safe and reduce the risk of dangerous items being carried on planes.”

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As is often the case with TSA’s answers, I can’t tell whether that’s a yes or a no.

I decided to put the police state question to an expert on repressive regimes. Mariam Memarsadeghi is a Washington-based human rights activist. “It’s absurd to liken the annoyances brought on by airport security to life under a police state,” she said. “A police state is defined by perpetual fear – fear of a state apparatus that is incessantly watching over the actions of people for the sole purpose of maintaining its power over them.”

Memarsadeghi notes that the threat American air travelers face isn’t from the government but from international terrorist networks.

So maybe the term “police state” isn’t quite right, then.

James Morrissey, a University of Illinois biochemistry professorand a frequent air traveler, prefers “intrusive security.” “TSA has become a law unto itself, and it routinely tramples the civil rights of the flying public,” he says. “Unfortunately, there will always be some people who will be perfectly okay with having their rights trampled in the name of security. But allowing this to happen is very disturbing to me.”

Jeff Stollman, a security and privacy consultant in Philadelphia, thinks that “annoying” better describes air travel in 2011. He’s irked by what he calls “security theater” that offers no real protection against terrorism. “I suspect that a lot of the current controls don’t really do that much to improve security,” he said.