As libertarian populist moments go, this one has everything: crying kids, pissed-off passengers, grabby agents, genital encroachment, and an all-purpose bit of slang that became a slogan overnight.
“Don’t touch my junk”: one could hardly devise a more libertarian sentiment, at least in the modern register. It's a bit disappointing that it took federally-mandated molestation to finally get people to the point of saying, “Enough!”, but there is certainly some comfort in knowing that such a point still exists. While Americans on the whole have been prepared to trade many of their liberties for security; while they have with only mild grumbling stripped off shoes and belts, dumped out shampoo and baby formula, and tossed away fabric scissors and Zippo lighters, yet there remains something up with which they will not put: the touching of the aforementioned “junk.”
What’s more depressing is that this fight even needed to be fought. It’s hard to find anyone willing to defend the high-school hernia-check approach, and harder still if you exclude those people—i.e., Congressmen — who don’t have to be subject to such treatment. Many even among the TSA staffers find all this cupping and diddling “disgusting and morale breaking” — not really surprising when you think about a job experience that’s gone from mildly berating herds of travelers to trying to distinguish the right folds on the type of passenger that Southwest requires two tickets for.
With the high-volume holiday travel weekends coming up soon, it’s clear that this policy is going to have to change; mounting stress on both sides of the plexiglass will lead eventually to either a boycott among passengers, a walkout among TSA staff, or some combination of the two. My worry is that, with concern so squarely focused on crotches, any compromise that gets TSA hands back out of passenger pants will defuse the issue, leaving the wider import of “junk touching” — invasive searches not only of person, but also of property — unchallenged.
Certainly we all would prefer to complete our plane flights without submitting our genitals to inspection. But concentrating on that “junk” alone means that outrageous stories of “touching” such as the harassment of Jacob Appelbaum will continue to be underreported. Appelbaum, a spokesman for Wikileaks, was returning from international travel when he was pulled aside and had his laptop and cellphone seized without a warrant or charge of any sort. Whatever your thoughts on Wikileaks, it should be sobering that the government claims the right at re-entry checkpoints to carry out searches that would be blatantly unconstitutional in any other context.
If you fly internationally, your electronic devices and data are subject to government search and seizure. For many people, this would be a far more invasive procedure than even a full cavity search, yet as it lacks the immediacy of a uniformed stooge grabbing for the short and curlies, it is not perceived as a threat. Additionally, many people still seem to buy the line that if the government is seizing someone’s computer, then there must be some reason for it, rather than a petty grudge, a political vendetta, or merely a mistaken identity, whereas every person in line at the airport can see there is no reason for a TSA agent to fondle a terrified 3-year-old or drench a cancer survivor in his own urine.
The outpouring of TSA jokes (check the Twitter hashtag #TSApickuplines for one rich vein) shows both the opportunity and the danger of this moment. There is a very clear and attainable victory to be won by channeling populist anger and pushing back against the most obviously invasive practices of our security statists. But if in freeing ourselves physically from the government’s icy grip their more insidious abuses of privacy are not likewise exposed and repudiated, we will have gained nothing: they’ll still have us by the balls.