Skip to content

The TSA Expands Its Security Theatre Repertory With the Chat-Down

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.


  1. patrick wrote:

    Hear, hear.

    Wednesday, August 17, 2011 at 10:26 pm | Permalink
  2. eden hemming wrote:

    This reminds me of the story about BART shutting down cell service in a few stations in San Francisco in order to try to reduce the number of protests. An official was quoted as saying that there is a “constitutional right to safety.” To say that that statement chilled me to the bone and pissed me off is not a strong enough statement.

    Wednesday, August 17, 2011 at 11:48 pm | Permalink
  3. Fisher1949 wrote:

    Excellent commentary.

    The American traveler is being punished for the failure of the FBI and CIA to share information and stop the 9/11 attacks. It is both stunning and sickening that so many people are willing to allow a government agency to sexually assault their children a just to fly. Under Pistole’s policies, TSA screeners have been turned into de facto child molesters and sexual assailants. They have admitted that the pat downs involve direct contact with passenger’s penises, testicles, breasts and vaginas including those of children which meets any reasonable definition of sexual assault. By their own calculations, TSA gropes over 60,000 passengers every day!

    Since December 2010 there have been 42 screeners arrested for crimes ranging from rape and child pornography to drug trafficking and theft from bags. In the same period, there have been 40 security breaches or failures, dozens of lawsuits and thousands of groping and abuse complaints. Most recently the pat down of a six year old girl and removal of a dying woman’s diaper made headlines. There is clearly a problem when an agency this size has this level of job-related criminal activity and passenger abuse.

    If TSA actually provided security instead of theater people might be inclined to support them. As is stands TSA is the most hated agency in government and the majority of travelers want them to be reformed or abolished due to the agency’s incompetence.

    TSA has needlessly molested and traumatized thousands of children since November and many of these abuses have been caught on video making national news. This agency is violating passenger rights on a daily basis, committing crimes and endangering airline security with their incompetence. Nothing less than the complete elimination of this agency is acceptable. Hopefully, those responsible for this criminal malfeasance, including Pistole, will be prosecuted by the next Administration.

    Thursday, August 18, 2011 at 6:12 am | Permalink
  4. P McGorrill wrote:

    Yea, I’m pretty sure I got to experience this new security level first hand about a week ago. It was like a lazy interrogation “where are you going? how long are you staying? what do you do for work? how did you pay for this trip? how long are you staying? what brings you to Boston? where are you going? how long are you staying? what are you doing there?” blahblahblah. Airports actually do make me nervous because I get an extra screening, bag check, or pat down every other time I go through security. It’s a fear feedback loop.

    Thursday, August 18, 2011 at 1:14 pm | Permalink
  5. GallingGalla wrote:

    I haven’t flown since July 2001. At that time, I was kettled by police officers in the Calgary, Alberta airport after I had an autistic meltdown at the gate. I avoided arrest only because my parents, who had already boarded the plane, came out to investigate what happened to me.

    The TSA is a danger to more than just my well-being, but to my life, both because of my autism (yeah, that’s right, TSA goonies, I *don’t* look people in the eye and I do get “nervous”, have tics, and rock) and I’m visibly trans.

    I won’t fly again until the TSA is eliminated and the developing police state is ramped way, way down.

    The TSA is also planning on bringing its security theater to Amtrak, commuter rail, etc.

    And I’m sure that the expansion of EZPass systems, even and especially onto roads that don’t charge tolls (sold to the public as “enhancing safety and convenience”) are a boon to the TSA and other show-us-your-papers types. And let’s remember that Obama has only accelerated the trend during his watch; he’s embraced the police state to a degree even exceeding GW Bush.

    Thursday, August 18, 2011 at 10:05 pm | Permalink
  6. Linds wrote:

    It’s unbelievable that they use these tactics, even just from a security perspective. They just don’t work. Who says suicide bombers are nervous? The reality is that no type of profiling works, ever, and that’s a fact.

    In Australia, we have the regular metal detectors, baggage scanners, and people are chosen at random for a bomb search (the one which involves being waved at with the wand and emptying the contents of your carry-on bag – no physical contact). I realise that as a small country we aren’t much of a terrorist target, but we’ve never had a major air security issue.

    Clearly, TSA don’t learn from terrorist threats. If they did, they would realise that they’ve never predicted how one would manifest. The lesson they need to learn is that types of terrorist attacks are not predictable (unless you have “intelligence” that says that they will, but that is neither prediction nor a TSA issue), because terrorists will find innovative ways to terrorise. The more specific and predictable your security measures are, the easier it is to tailor an effective plan to circumvent them. TSA hasn’t learned how to prevent terrorism – they’ve learned how to prevent terrorist attacks that have already happened.

    In my opinion, this is a case of having neither freedom nor security. USA! USA!

    Friday, August 19, 2011 at 7:30 am | Permalink
  7. Jennifer wrote:

    I haven’t flown since 2008. I would like to go visit my friend that moved to another state, but thanks to the TSA I am putting that shit off or never doing it, apparently.

    I looked into Amtrak for this: it would take over 24 hours, most of it on busses rather than trains, and Amtrak doesn’t even go to her city, which is the biggest one in the state. WHAT THE HELL.

    I don’t know what the hell to do. This shit isn’t gonna get any better and we, the people, can’t stop it really.

    Friday, August 19, 2011 at 7:39 pm | Permalink
  8. Rachel wrote:

    I had heard of these, but only just realized that it’s being rolled out at Logan, where I’ve got a flight in a week, and I’ll probably have at least one more trip by air between now and the end of the two month trial. The thing is, I have absolutely no faith in TSA officers ability to make the airport “safer.” I fly knowing that if there is another terror attack involving airplanes (unlikely) the TSA isn’t going to stop it. And now I just get to have the fun of getting to the airport even earlier to accommodate this unnecessary step? Joy.

    Friday, August 19, 2011 at 8:01 pm | Permalink
  9. Jane O wrote:

    Hi, is there anything you can do to get this petition circulated?

    Kind regards
    Jane Osmond

    Saturday, August 20, 2011 at 8:16 am | Permalink
  10. Hershele Ostropoler wrote:

    I hate talking to people I don’t know. Hate, hate, hate. And airports make me nervous, nowadays, when I can never know if something I say or do will bring the full weight of whatever this week’s security theatrics are down on my head. So I feel I would fail this particular screening. Which prospect would, of course, make me more reluctant to talk and more nervous. And so on.

    Monday, August 22, 2011 at 8:42 pm | Permalink
  11. samanthab wrote:

    My father and I have ADD and just aren’t good at sitting still and have repeatedly encountered problems. That’s all it fucking takes, a tinge of restlessness. I’m only wondering to what extent this stuff is not incidental but entirely deliberate. Isn’t it a classic tactic throughout history to stave off societal fear by targeting an “other?” Meaning I’m not sure it matters to many Americans that the mentally ill, etc. at airports don’t pose any real physical threat. They don’t act “right,” and that’s an emotional threat to a society clinging to order in an attempt to ward off fear.

    Tuesday, August 23, 2011 at 8:13 am | Permalink
  12. Roux wrote:

    I used to study in the USA, and my boyfriend is an American. That means that I’ve travelled a lot and will continue to do so in the future as well.

    I fucking HATE American security checks. The endless hoops you have to jump, the extreme security check-lines and the fact that whenever someone official talks to you you feel like every question is part of some secret interrogation. I haven’t had to fly since they started installing those nightmarish body scanners and I can’t begin to say how they disgust me.

    I just wish I could see an end for this downward spiral of totalitarian impulses in the west, but I really don’t.

    Wednesday, August 24, 2011 at 5:49 am | Permalink
  13. vesta44 wrote:

    I haven’t flown since before this shit all started with the TSA, and just from everything I’ve read in the news, I’m glad I don’t have to fly for any reason. If I want to go on vacation, I’ll drive myself wherever it is I’m going.
    Not only do I not want to deal with the TSA, I refuse to deal with airlines who think they can cram people into airplanes like sardines and if you’re larger than the tiny bit of space they allow for those sardines, you have to buy a second space (oh, and that second space may not be next to the first space you bought – makes sooooo much sense, doesn’t it). No thank you, I’ll save my travel outside the country for the time when the TSA is no more and this disgusting travesty has been put to rest (and when airlines start treating ALL passengers the same). Until then, I’ll travel by way of my own personal vehicle and not leave the USA.

    Wednesday, August 24, 2011 at 8:36 pm | Permalink
  14. Charles wrote:

    As a trans man with social anxiety, this basically guarantees that I won’t be flying, uh, ever.

    These measures are ridiculous and needlessly invasive, and the only thing which frustrates me more is when those who won’t experience them as anything but a vague annoyance assume that their experience is universal, and assert that anyone who feels legitimately threatened is just overreacting.

    Friday, August 26, 2011 at 7:03 pm | Permalink
  15. Jenna wrote:

    I can’t believe this.

    I’m autistic and a sexual assault survivor. If I’m going to get on a plane by myself, I’m going to be incredibly nervous. I’m going to flap my hands, rock, shift my weight, chew my nails. I’m going to obsessively stick to the plan I’ve laid out, so that maybe I won’t respond immediately when asked, “How are you?”

    If the TSA officers are men, I will be afraid of them. Simple as that. No matter how nice they are. They are strangers, I am alone, they have power.

    What if I look “too anxious?” What if they decide my tics and stims are “suspicious?” What if they take away my stress ball? What if they derail me from my plan? What if it’s all just too much and I, a grown woman, start crying in the middle of the airport?

    I guess I’ll have to have my parents along to shield me from these “security measures” and explain my every twitch to them. Sigh.

    Saturday, August 27, 2011 at 8:59 pm | Permalink
  16. chavisory wrote:

    Wow. So reaffirming my decision not to fly anymore, since Christmas of last year when the enhanced pat-down regulations went into effect.

    Amtrak is fantastic, y’all.

    Thursday, September 8, 2011 at 7:59 pm | Permalink