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TSA Agents are People Too! (Just kidding. They actually aren't.)

(In the interest of full disclosure, it is important to point out before you read this that I HATE the TSA.)

In "Inside Job: My Life as an Airport Screener," journalist Barbara Peterson reports on her brief time working undercover as a TSA agent. She describes the hassles of working for such a difficult and maligned organization whose rules and procedures are just as confusing to the poor saps who have to enforce them as they are to you and me. She describes long hours, pissy or even violent passengers, and the kind of governmental waste we're unfortunately all accustomed to.

Ultimately, she concludes that the problems are due to poor management and inadequate funding, not due to the evil bastards working the lines at the US airport near you.

And I call bullshit.

I think we can all agree that the US government is staffed by some of the biggest morons and psychopaths ever to have walked the face of the earth, who couldn't manage their way out of a wet paper bag with a map, a satellite guidance system, and a big flashing neon arrow labeled "This way out of wet paper bag." But that does not in any way exonerate the fascist assholes working the "security" lines any more than it exonerates (Oh god am I really going to say this? Don't I have to wait a few more posts before this shows up?) the Nazi SS.

That there was another group that were paid to abuse people and who probably, individually, were pretty nice, normal people who just had, as far as they were concerned, a shitty job that made no sense. But what if they had just refused? All of them? Well, there would have been no Blitzkrieg, no death camps, and Hitler would have finally been sent to a sanitarium where the poor lunatic belonged. But they didn't. They just kept coming to work. We often forget about that, don't we? These were just normal guys who landed a government job. But that doesn't excuse them from blame. In fact, it may just make it worse.

See, the reason people hate the TSA monkeys working the lines is not because they think that they are different from themselves, but because they know they are the same, and yet, they are profitting from this gross and unconstitutional invasion of their privacy and waste of their time. People know that these are not the people who made the idiotic policies. But the fact that they get up every morning, like us, drive through shitty commuter traffic to get to work, like us, and have to deal with halfwitted management, like us, yet still are willing to violate our rights for money makes them worse than the lofty, detatched, halfwits who thought up these various draconian-yet-halfassed flights of security fancy. These are the people we should be counting on to say "Yeah... You know what? Fuck this." But they aren't. They're willing to be paid to pretend to keep you and me safe from the inevitable (another terrorist attack, sometime). And we're not talking about being paid a lot; we're talking about just shy of fourteen bucks an hour. Now, that beats burger flipping, but it isn't anywhere near enough to entice most people to shit on the Constitution and wipe their asses with the Bill o' Rights.

 

POINT-BY-POINT

Having now set up my basic response, allow me, if you will, to respond to a few lines of Ms. Peterson's article:

 

ONE:

I've become sensitive to, and discouraged by, the way screeners are depicted in the media: Most of the reports are about screeners missing weapons, stealing from bags, or manhandling eighty-year-old grannies. If there are positive accounts—other than in TSA press releases—I don't see them. Yet from what I can see, my co-workers are pros, expert at spotting prohibited items with regularity: Lighters, razor blades, and Swiss Army knives all end up in our trove of confiscated items.

--Yes, and this is the problem. Lighters, razor blades, and even Swiss Army knives are not dangerous. Not to an entire plane of people. Not after 9/11, especially. A handful of guys with box cutters didn't take those planes down; 30 years of the official advice on what to do if your plane got hijacked did. Those people just sat there, thinking that they'd probably be landing somewhere and eating McDonald's for a few days before the terrorists were taken care of, one way or another. But even 45 minutes after the first plane hit, the plan didn't work anymore. It was too late for the people on flight 93 to stop the hijacking from happening, but it wasn't too late to put the hurt on the fuckers who did it. And they did. And they died. But they didn't take more innocents with them. They acted like rational people who understood that the rules of engagement had just changed.Why hasn't the TSA made the same realization?

People don't hate the TSA because they are inneffective at stealing their personal possessions; they hate them because they are effective--effective at doing a stupid job that results in a lot of innocent people's property being stolen by the government with no hope of recompense.

The first time I was told I couldn't take my 1.5 inch folding Buck pocketknife on a plane was long before 9/11, in Japan. They had tighter rules than the US at the time, and I hadn't known about them. But you know what happened? They put it in an envelope with my name on it and checked it for me. It was waiting at the baggage claim counter in Denver when I arrived. I thought the rule was retarded, but I wasn't too worried about it; I got my knife back.

That knife was permanently confiscated in Denver the next year.

Now, it was only like a $15 knife, but it was mine. The government in America, so we are told, does not have the right to just search everybody and take their shit. Quoting, now, the Fourth Ammendment now, in its entirety:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Seems pretty clear to me... So where is the warrant granting the mall cop in latex gloves the right to rifle through my bag and take, specifically, my pocketknife?

I've heard the argument that riding on an airplane is a priviledge and that the airlines are private companies and they can do whatever the hell they want. And I'd basically agree. If that were true, but it's not. The TSA is a governmental body. They are effectively police. And they are the ones doing the searching and seizing. I imagine there's some argument out there that since they aren't really police, the Fourth somehow doesn't apply. But we all know that's bullshit, just like saying that detainees at Guantanamo don't have the human rights protected by the Geneva Convention nor the rights protected by our own Constitution, because they're not soldiers and they're not Americans and they're not in America and by god we can do whatever the fuck we want mu-hahahahah.

Nowhere in the Constitution does it say that the US government has the right to define words. Just because you don't define the TSA as police officers doesn't mean they aren't; just because you don't define enemy combatants as soldiers doesn't mean they aren't. What we have here is a police force, unreasonably and without warrant, searching and siezing. And that's why people are pissed. Not because they aren't doing those things enough.

 

TWO:

Above all, I was left to conclude that the screeners have become the scapegoats for failures throughout the system.

Once again, I think we all know that the big failures are at the top. But you asshats take those abstract failures in judgement and common sense and expand them out into the concrete universe and fuck all our lives up for real. You get the worst of the ire because you are the dumbasses making us hop around with one shoe and our pants falling down because we had to take our belts off. Spare us the lame blame-shifting.

 

THREE:

[After I quit,] within days, a former colleague at the checkpoint called to tell me that a passenger had attacked another of my old co-workers: Apparently fed up with the checkpoint protocol, the woman threw her shoes, which landed in the screener's face like two fastballs. Although questioned by police, the passenger was ultimately released; the airline even delayed the flight for her as a courtesy.

This incident perfectly illustrates how the abuse and hostility that screeners face every day, combined with lack of support from the TSA and law enforcement, leads to flagging morale and perhaps even poor performance.

You don't like people throwing shoes in your face? Then stop making them take them off and prodding them with wands and telling them they have to ride a plane for 11 hours but can't have a bottle of water to stop them from their eyes drying up and falling out. What? That's your whole job? Then quit.

But wow... I mean, all I ever muster are some bitchy comments or challenges of legality. If I had known I could get away with bloodying them up...

 

FOUR:

Gale Rossides, a senior TSA official who helped start the screener hiring and training program right after 9/11, concedes that morale is a problem and holds the media partly responsible. "We need to get the word out," she says, "to talk about the heroes."

Who, pray tell, in god's ever-blessed and loving name, are these so-called "heroes???"

Oh, are you talking about that TSA agent who singlehandedly identified and captured Osama Bin Laden, who was trying to sneak into the US to catch a performance of Stomp? Or the time that the TSA agents found that thermonuclear bomb cleverly disguised as a digital camera? What's that you say? Those never happened? Oh. Well, shit.

Surely we're not talking about the hero who successfully thwarted my wife's plot to give a pair of shoes to her sister as a birthday gift without them being dumped onto search area floor, scooped back into the bag sans box, and left to rattle around in there for 20 hours of travel, scuffing and misshaping them to the point of unpresentability?

Or the valiant agent who saw to it that my diabolical plan to arrive home in Japan without a suitcase full of shampoo from a bottle whose cap was removed and then placed back in still open never came to fruition?

The only "word" any of us want you to "get out" is this "We're sorry, we quit, and we're dying of some incurable disease involving gross body fluids popping and squirting and itching and whatnot and will be gone forever in a coupla days; bye-bye now."

 

FIVE:

Last, but certainly not least, is this pretentious list of "dos" and "don'ts":

DON'T tell a screener that you are about to miss your flight (it won't win you any sympathy and could even arouse suspicion).

Of course it won't win you any sympathy. You can't feel sympathy if you have no soul.

DON'T wear clothing with metallic objects such as buckles.

...Yeah... Because business suits, military uniforms, and--gosh--most any pants other than Sansabelts look great and garner lots of respect when worn without a belt. Seriously, if I'm ever traveling without my wife (who would never forgive me) in the US, I'm going to walk through in a hospital gown and boxers. Then I'll take the gown off and put it through the x-ray machine.

Okay, maybe I'm not serious. But don't think for a minute that I won't think about it.

DON'T wear lots of jewelry or hairpins that can't be easily removed.

But if women can't wear their wedding rings, how will you guys know if the woman you're molesting "as a security precaution" in the back room is married or not?

DON'T say you "forgot" you have liquids in your bag.

...But what if I did??? Am I supposed to say "Yeah, I was just testin' ya. Guess what? You passed!"

Actually... That sounds like a pretty good idea...

DON'T try to jam everything into one bin in a misguided effort to be helpful—it's much harder to screen.

Then you put them in the bins. I'm not trying to be helpful; I'm trying to get away from you.

DON'T accuse screeners of theft: Once you're certain an item is missing, speak to a supervisor.

This is actually just fine. Most likely, what you're looking for just got moved around in there when they were rifling through your carry-on.

You won't find out about the stuff they stole until you get home and open your checked baggage.

DON'T tell screeners "it only comes in this size" or "it's almost empty" when asked to surrender containers of liquid larger than three ounces.

DON'T tell them how much you spent on the toiletries—it won't make any difference if they're the wrong size.

Then don't tell me that I can't have anything more viscous than courdoroy on planes because some guys in England had seen too many movies and started talking out their asses! I will admit, however, it certainly has boosted the in-flight booze market, now that most carriers don't even offer free drinks on international flights anymore.

Wait a minute... They couldn't possibly be related could they?

DON'T block traffic by repacking your belongings on the conveyor belt.

Then don't make me open my shit and spread it around.

DO wear easily removable shoes.

See points about belts and apply to footwear.

DO keep your boarding pass in hand.

Okay... Now that I think about it... WHY? If I were a terrorist, I'd have at least bought a fucking ticket, and if I'm just some schmo, I wouldn't be waiting in your idiotic lines if I didn't have a plane to catch!

DO take the plastic bag holding liquids out of your carry-on before putting it through the X-ray machine.

Again with the liquids. Oy vey.

DO lay your bag on its side (the upright position is much harder to "read" and may trigger a rescreening).

..Yeahhhh... that kinda sounds like your job.

DO put items through the X-ray machine only when you are ready to walk through the metal detector. This minimizes the time you're separated from your belongings.

--Unless you are "randomly" selected for further screening because you say something like "You know your job is pointless, right?" Then your stuff is going to be sitting over there a long time without you. Believe me.

DO make sure that you have all items before you leave the checkpoint.

...Yeah. Easier said than done. Every time I walk away from one of those, I hope to god I didn't forget something after all the things I've been asked to take out, take off, open, put in separate boxes, stand in, suck on, and swallow.

 

CONCLUSION

Hey kids, we've had a lot of fun here today, but you know what's not fun? Dealing with the TSA. So don't. Just stop flying if you can. Berate them if you can't. And if you work for them, for god's sake, stop.

Our freedoms are only as good as our will to assert them for ourselves, and for others. When we let petty functionaries hold us hostage and steal our belongings, we cease to be free. And when we ourselves become those petty functionaries, we start to be fascists.

I understand that Ms. Peterson felt empathy for her coworkers at the TSA, and I'm sure they were normal, regular folks, just like you and me. But that does not mean that they are not to blame. They are. Their bosses are. And if you're not fighting back, you are too.

 

EPILOGUE:

This guy seems to agree with me, but he is a racist homophobe. He is also ugly. And a douchebag. It's hard to be a libertarian (lower-case l, please--I'm not a neo-feudalist) sometimes, on account of so many of them being assholes.

Comments

and... working at McDonald's is personally contributing to American obesity? Perhaps.. but by a pretty small amount. These assholes ARE given fucked up policies to follow. I'm pretty sure if they all stopped showing up to work we'd just get the national guard in their place.

basically batty, if ya fight this thing from the bottom up, you're not going to get this message out very far, because the average TSA monkey hears this crap every day, and it NEVER goes up the chain to superiors, or their superiors superiors...

I actually had a point about this but I thought the diatribe was getting long enough as it was. Now I see I should have closed that backdoor.

Sure, lots of people have stupid, shitty jobs that have negative repercussions on society. Blarg's own Solarvvind used to have a job breaking digital cameras so that those features could be packaged as a different product for more money on the same hardware, for example. But there's a massive difference between that kind of job and the TSA:

I don't have to go to McDonald's if I don't want.

No one is forcing me to eat unhealthy food or buy crippled techtoys. If I want to eat, no one is saying, "Sorry buddy, but if you want to get any nutrition at all, you have to get all this fat and sugar and who-knows-what with it." If I want to take a picture, no one is stopping me from buying a different camera or even just using film and scanning the prints, for example. I have consumer rights in both of those cases. I can take my money elsewhere. I can make a more positive health choice (as an aside, Supersize Me is a great movie, and I really really like Morgan Spurlock, but c'mon--eating out for every meal just about anywhere would wreak havoc on your body--restaurant food tastes good because they do the things we all avoid in our own cooking; we just don't see it and ignorance is bliss!).

This is not the case with the TSA.

The TSA is not a company providing a product or service to the paying customer. It is a federal program of a supposedly democratic government. And it is abusing the rights of that democratic country's citizens. You. Me. The very people working there. We are the government of the United States of America, so these people saying "whatcha gonna do?" is disgustingly ingenuine. When you are oppressing your fellow Americans, supposedly against your will and better judgment, you are a tool of a government that is increasingly seeing itself as separate from the laypeople, not as a member of it.

Yeah, lots of people have shitty, crazy jobs that make no sense. But they do not erode the foundations of their society and threaten to lay waste to the basic rights and liberties that supposedly make us who we are. There is a difference between people willingly paying to eat crap and people being unreasonably searched and having their property seized by their fellow Americans as a prerequisite to move around the country and around the world. And the difference is enormous. It's the difference between a free market, which is distinctly American, and tyranny, which is not.