The Transportation Security Administration just keeps getting more creative when it comes to tormenting air travelers in the US. Problems with the approach to security by agencies like the TSA, which tend to focus on a reactive rather than proactive handling of security matters, have been extensively documented by experts like Bruce Schneier, who regularly profiles the latest TSA follies on his website. Many of these security measures have been implemented gradually in pilot programs slowly rolled out across the United States, so by the time people become broadly aware of them, they’re already established.
This security theatre serves a number of functions for the TSA and the US government, and not very many of them are directly related to actually making air travel safer. Citizens learn that they should not self-advocate, defend civil rights, or choose to disobey commands that are threatening or dangerous from people in uniform, even though many TSA officers are poorly trained and are unfamiliar with their agency’s own policies. The culture of fear that surrounds the security line ensures that every passenger is viewed with suspicion, and the extreme authority of the TSA means that passengers can be detained and harassed with minimal legal recourse.
Flyers who’ve clocked a lot of hours in airplanes have noted the shifts in airport security, and the dangerous precedents it sets for passengers. Young children learn that they should be subject to invasive physical examinations in the name of security. People with disabilities are taught to tolerate handling of assistive devices, and their bodies. People of colour learn to arrive two hours early for domestic flights because they will be profiled in security lines, no matter what the TSA claims. Transgender and transsexual people prepare for embarrassing and sometimes harassing questions and examinations.
All in the name of security. It’s hard to prove a negative, and thus it’s difficult to determine if the increased intensity of airport security in the United States has actually prevented terrorism. The TSA is quick to announce when it foils a plot in progress, and the media helpfully fills the public in when the TSA almost misses something critical, but this still provides an incomplete picture. There’s no way to know how many people have considered and then abandoned plans to attack US airports and commercial flights, as there’s no tickybox for this on the Census form. Thus, discussions and debates about security inherently miss a big piece of the puzzle, but it’s one critics argue is not necessarily required to discuss the merits of how the US handles airport security.
Aggression from airport security officers is part of a larger ‘papers, please’ trend in the United States that values giving law enforcement more power, and suspending civil rights, in the name of national security. The slow erosion of rights has a snowball effect that becomes impossible to reverse. First it was just the people with the FBI red flags. Then it was random passenger screenings. Then it was people who cover for religious reasons. The numbers of people affected by security grew, and grew, and grew, and these numbers were watched overseas with increasing interest, especially on the part of prospective travelers to the US. Increasingly, airport security is starting to seem like a parody of itself.
The TSA’s latest innovation is the ‘chat-down,’ a brief interview with security officers that they’re rolling out at Logan Airport. Every single passenger who goes through the airport in the next two months will be subjected to interview, which will undoubtedly hold up security lines, but the TSA claims this makes things safer, pointing to things like the extreme airport security used in Israel. Israel, of course, handles a fraction of the flights that pass in and out of US airports every day, uses highly trained officers in its examinations, and doesn’t mind a side of blatant racial profiling with its airport security.
Allegedly, the TSA has a list of 35 items officers are being trained to watch for, although it won’t disclose most of them in the name of security. However, it’s easy to guess, from the numerous ‘report suspicious behaviour’ guidelines released by the TSA and other government agencies in an attempt to get people to spy on each other. Nervousness, not making eye contact, rocking or twitching, chewing fingernails, perspiration, ‘cognitive overload,’ appearing distracted. Describing the Behaviour Detection Officers it already has in place, the TSA assures the public that:
TSA’s BDO-trained security officers are screening travelers for involuntary physical and physiological reactions that people exhibit in response to a fear of being discovered. TSA recognizes that an individual exhibiting some of these behaviors does not automatically mean a person has terrorist or criminal intent.
The organization claims to use sensitive training techniques to familiarise officers not only with the process of identifying ‘suspicious behaviour,’ but also of ruling out people who may be exhibiting these behaviours for other reasons. One obvious group affected by such policies is people with autism and various cognitive and intellectual disabilities, who have already been profiled for law enforcement for years, sometimes fatally. Any history of brain injury like tumor or stroke can also lead to behaviours that might appear abnormal. So can diabetes, which can cause impairment in insulin-dependent diabetics, who may have trouble managing their blood sugar levels while traveling.
Likewise, people with anxiety disorders and some mental illnesses, some of which can cause symptoms of anxiety while stressed (say, when you’re traveling), and some of which are managed with medications that can cause symptoms like twitching, rocking, sweating, and excessive salivation. Astoundingly, it appears that stress about going through airport security can make people more nervous, and thus can exacerbate symptoms that may not be in their control to begin with.
Many people of colour also have understandable reasons to be nervous around security, and may well exhibit signs of not wanting to be caught at something, but it’s not because they’re doing anything wrong. Other people who might be nervous: sexual assault survivors who are worried about an invasive patdown or other security screening. Parents traveling alone with young children who are concerned about the safety and welfare of their children in a crowded, unfamiliar environment. The list goes on; transgender advocacy groups are also concerned about the impact of new security measures on trans travelers, who already report high rates of harassment, intimidation, and abuse at the hands of TSA officials.
The response to tightened security measures among people they don’t affect is often one of distaste or unease, with a side of ‘well, this probably won’t have an impact on my life.’ Travelers already subject to increased problems while traveling, or those who can see that they may become targets with new screening, and understandably less sanguine about the situation. The problem, unfortunately, is that neither group is in a position to do very much about it, when challenging TSA officials, speaking up for yourself or other passengers, could get you thrown off a flight, added to the no-fly list, arrested, or otherwise harassed. The reality of harsh security measures is often only brought home at the airport, at which point it’s too late.
This is part and parcel of the increasing attack on civil rights in the United States, and the creation of an increasing growing helplessness among citizens, by government agencies that flex their muscles with impunity. Activist organisations encourage people to file civil rights complaints and share them with those organisations; you can file reports not just with the TSA but also your attorney general and the airline. However, this can also make you a target for further profiling and addition to a blacklist, so it can come at a high cost. The United States is increasingly a place where the nail that stands up gets pounded down.
Those with the greatest number of intact rights, and the most to lose, are those in the best position to do something about this. To complain, sending letters to members of Congress, airport officials, and airlines. To ask for an alternative to the TSA; airports are not legally required to use the TSA for their security services. To document abuses of fellow passengers; it is still legal, for now, to film and record security officers. To talk about this, and to not shut up, to create some kind of traction to change the culture of security theatre, and fear, that dominates law enforcement agencies in the United States, from BART police to TSA officers. To make streets, airports, bus stations, train depots, safe once more for all people who want to traverse them without fear of harassment from people in uniforms who wield too much power.
What price are you willing to pay for security? Many of us have been paying that price for a very long time now.