TSA Training Film

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Liberty’s readers know that I’m a fan of Liam Neeson’s middle-aged reincarnation as an action hero. His romps through thrillers with such single-word titles as Taken and Unknown, beating up bad guys half his age as he struggles to rescue his family (a common theme in his action films). This is cinematic escapism at its best.

At first this classically trained Shakespearean actor, who earned an Oscar nomination in 1993 for his powerfully moving performance as Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List, was embarrassed by the success of Taken. He admits that he agreed to take on the role simply for the opportunity to spend three months in Paris (and, I suppose, for the $5,000,000 fee he was reportedly paid), but he expected the film to go straight to video, he says, where no one would see it. Nevertheless, he has embraced his new role as an action hero, and enjoys resurrecting the skills he learned as a professional boxer in Dublin, many years ago, for these beat-’em-up films.

In Non-Stop Neeson again gets to growl menacing lines and land knock-out punches as he chases the bad guys, this time while flying on a jet between New York and London. But this time it was a lot harder for me to enjoy the ride.

Neeson plays Bill Marks, an air marshal who springs into action when he receives a text message from someone on the plane threatening to kill a passenger every 20 minutes until $150 million is transferred to a numbered bank account. Who is the culprit? And how can he be stopped?

Marks doesn’t know who the bad guy is, so he treats every single passenger as the hijacker and murderer. This is the TSA run amok with self-righteous determination.

Marks storms through the plane, grabbing anyone who looks suspicious and slinging the suspects around the plane. He stops at nothing (get it? non-stop?) in his determination to stop the killer. He snatches cell phones from breast pockets, rummages through carry-on bags, breaks one passenger’s nose and another passenger’s arm and another passenger’s neck. He shoots guns and thrusts knives and shoves food carts.

This is classic Neeson action-hero schtick, and I usually love it. But I have a problem with it in Non-Stop: these passengers aren’t bad guys. Well, one of them is. But Marks doesn’t know who, so he treats every single passenger as the hijacker and murderer. This is the TSA run amok with self-righteous determination. It doesn’t matter who might be hurt or even killed, so long as the air marshal gets his man. I actually cheered when the passengers finally mustered enough gumption to smack Marks in the head with a fire extinguisher, even though he was just “doing his duty” and “protecting” them.

Also uncomfortably along for the ride are Julianne Moore as the air marshal’s seatmate and Lupita Nyong’o as a flight attendant. Both are downright silly in their hand-wringing. I’m sure that if director Jaume Collet-Serra had known Nyong’o was going to be awarded an Oscar for her role in in Twelve Years a Slave and conducting a media blitz the very week his film was released, he would have given her a few more lines. Instead she is virtually hidden in the background. I rather imagine she is relieved that this film didn’t open in January, while the Academy members were still voting . . .

Even the denouement of Non-Stop is disappointing. I won’t tell you who did it, but it really doesn’t matter. The reaction is more of an “oh . . .” than an “Aha!” That’s because the story is set up like an Agatha Christie mystery in which every last suspect could plausibly be guilty. Whoops — I guess that’s exactly what the TSA wants us to think, isn’t it?

Non-Stop is a disappointment in every way. If this had been Neeson’s first foray into the action thriller genre, it would indeed have ended up going directly to video. I don’t even recommend it on Netflix.


Editor's Note: Review of "Non-Stop," directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. StudioCanal, 2014, 106 minutes.



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My Excellent TSA Adventure

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In late September, I paid a visit to my sister in Santa Barbara. Having heard the horror stories about the ultra-vigilant guardians of our skies, I was leery about going through security. I hadn’t flown for two years, and thought the process might have gotten scarier. As I prepared to depart from Phoenix, however, things went without a hitch. Shoes off, all the contents of my pockets in a plastic container, arms over my head for a nudie shot (the only new, unpleasant feature) — all routine.

Sky Harbor is a huge airport. Tens of thousands of people pass through it daily, and everybody is too busy to hassle a vaguely Nordic-looking middle-aged lady. Nobody in his right mind would mistake me for a terrorist, but in any facility of such size, I would expect to encounter big government at its most oppressive. Santa Barbara’s airport, on the other hand, is small and rather quaint. Its sole terminal looks something like a high school building. I anticipated that my pass through security, on the way home, would be equally uneventful.

I could not have been more wrong. Evidently the TSA agents at tiny airports demand to be taken seriously. They aren’t going to let anybody think she’s dealing with Andy Taylor or Barney Fife.

As my sister stood and watched behind the barricade, a reassuring maternal presence seeing me off, I presented my boarding pass and picture I.D. I don’t drive, so the state of Arizona has issued me an all-purpose identification card. The agent squinted at it as if it were written in Chinese. He turned it over several times, perused it front, back, and upside down, and called over another agent. They both behaved as if it were the most extraordinary thing they’d ever seen.

They informed me that the card displayed no expiration date. I informed them that this was a general identification card, not a driver’s license, and that my identity wouldn’t expire. I wasn’t aware the TSA had made it a rule that only drivers could fly. I didn’t come right out and say this, of course. Barney Fifes never tolerate so much as a peep of impertinence.

My sister stepped around to the side of the barricade. For a moment, I wondered if she was going to step over it. She had plenty to say. “It was good enough to get her here,” I specifically remember her telling the agents. “I don’t know why it shouldn’t be good enough to get her home.”

They looked peeved. They couldn’t keep her from flying, because she wasn’t going anywhere. Nor did they offer any reason to reject her argument. But they kept on brooding over the card.

He turned it over several times, perused it front, back, and upside down, and called over another agent. They both behaved as if it were the most extraordinary thing they’d ever seen.

Agent Number Two took it over to a different station and called someone on the phone. He came back, gave me my card, made some officious little squiggles on my boarding pass and waved me through. My sister and I were relieved. I would not be relegated to non-personhood.

I assume the agent called Arizona and verified that this was indeed a state-issued ID. I was not aware, before this incident, that non-drivers presented any greater threat to airline security than, say, terrorists who drive themselves to airports. Evidently, however, the very fact that we don’t drive means we are shady characters. Perhaps it is petty for me to raise this question, but is every adult who doesn’t drive now potentially subject to such a hassle before being permitted to board a flight?

What is it, specifically, that casts a shadow over us? Is it that, in this small way, we don’t conform to the norm? Is it that our form of identification requires TSA personnel to think? I’ve put these questions to a number of my friends. Their response has been that I, like a typical libertarian, enjoy nitpicking about government oppression. That I find it under every rock.

I suppose I do get testier about authoritarian silliness than a lot of people might. But surely there’s no harm in asking the questions. In retrospect, it bothers me less that the incident happened than that I felt I didn’t dare ask these questions to the agents at the airport. At one time I would have, but now — as if by animal instinct — I’d be afraid to.

What is happening to us, as a country? As a people raised to presume ourselves free from such cringe-inducing intimidation? This is the question that haunts me. Though what happened to me amounted to no more than a minor irritant, I must admit that I was genuinely afraid. My guts knotted up within me in a way to which I’m unaccustomed.

Would a terrorist feel that sort of fear in that sort of a situation? Or is the procedure designed primarily to intimidate law-abiding citizens like me? I don’t want to become accustomed to that feeling. I wonder if eventually it will, for all of us, become routine.




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Nude No More

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The Transportation Security Administration announced Friday that it will begin removing the full-body X-ray scanners that have been in use at US airports for the past three years. It's about time. Europe outlawed them long ago for being too invasive. Overzealous TSA guards have used them as an excuse to get vicious with travelers who simply want to get to their planes on time, without having to provide a nudie show for the screeners hidden away in a darkened room somewhere with their hands on who-knows-what. I'm all for security when I travel, but these scanners have done little to thwart terrorism.

I love how the TSA announcement blames the decision on business instead of owning up to the fact that the things don't work and aren't necessary. Here's their official reason: "The maker of the scanner failed to meet a deadline for new software." Ha! It's never the government's fault.




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A Costly Epiphany

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A recent article struck my eye as worthy of some comment. It is a story completely ignored in the mainstream media, but fascinating nonetheless.

It reports that Rep. John Mica (R-FL), the very congressman who authored the bill that created the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, is now having second thoughts about his creation. In fact, he now favors dismantling and even privatizing it.

Mica, who heads the House Transportation Committee, is candid in acknowledging that the TSA is now a poster child for the Law of Unintended Consequences. He notes that the agency has metastasized (as government agencies are wont to do). It went from a $2 billion to a $9 billion “enterprise.” And Mica avers with apparent astonishment, “The whole program has been hijacked by bureaucrats.”

This, of course, makes one want to ask Mica whether he can name any government program not hijacked by bureaucrats. But I digress.

Mica rates the performance of the TSA collectively as a “D-,” and calls the agency a “fiasco.” It is purely reactive, he notes. It required all of us who fly to take off our shoes after only one man (Richard Reid) tried putting bombs in his shoes. He also notes that the agents who pat us down (or in some cases feel us up) because of the underwear bomber have failed to detect any threats in ten years.

It cost $1 billion to train the TSA’s 62,000 workers. Mica says he thinks that the agency should have only about 5,000 workers, and do what he originally intended it to do: gather intelligence in order to uncover terrorist threats and inform the airlines and airports.

The article rehearses some of the more egregious incidents in the agency’s history. In 2002, when it hired 30,000 screeners, the $104 million it gave a company to train these workers ballooned to $740 million. One executive for the company was paid $5.4 million for nine months’ work. Some recruiting sessions were held at tony resorts in Colorado, Florida, and the Virgin Islands. Hundreds of thousands of bucks were splurged on valet parking, beverages, and cash withdrawals, including $2,000 for Starbucks coffee and $8,000 for elevator operators. (At least the luxury-class people conducting these sessions were big tippers.)

Add to this the fact that for years the agency failed to track lost passes and uniforms, and the fact that screeners have been arrested for stealing the jewelry, computers, cameras, cash, and credit cards of travelers, and the fact that in 2006, screeners at two of the biggest airports were unable to find 60% of the simulated bombs planted on fake travelers.

So, having learned firsthand about the Law of Unintended Consequences, Mica now believes the TSA should be privatized and focus on intelligence, not screening. It is gratifying to witness the economic education of a public servant. The pity is that his tuition cost so much of our treasure and our liberty.




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The Way-Too-Friendly Skies

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A Gargantuan Gift to the Unions

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After his decisive defeat in the recent congressional elections, President Obama is now trying to portray himself as a born-again centrist, verbalizing vague sympathies for small business and lighter regulation, not to mention capitulating to the Republicans’ demands to renew the Bush tax cuts for two more years. He is even feigning admiration for President Reagan.

But Obama is one of the most artful deceivers in the history of an office well known for attracting deceivers. As I have urged before (“Obamalaise,” Liberty, May 2010), you have to look at what he does, not merely at what he says. And what he is actually doing is continuing to advance his leftist agenda.

A particularly disgusting illustration is his recent decision, almost completely ignored in the mainstream media, to allow TSA employees (the airport screeners) to unionize.

When the TSA was set up, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the TSA administrator was given the authority to choose whether to give the employees the right to collective bargaining. Until now, the TSA has not done so. But Obama’s choice to head the TSA, John Pistole, changed that policy. Now the TSA’s 40,000 airport screeners — those paragons of efficiency and decorum, so eager to guard our privacy rights — join the ranks of public employees who are already in unions. The TSA employees will vote in March between representation by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and the National Treasury Employees Union.

John Gage, president of the AFGE, crowed, “Today marks the recognition of a fundamental human right for 40,000 patriotic federal employees who have been disenfranchised since the inception of the agency.” Well he might crow, since these events will add 40,000 new employees to the public employee unions, which saw a drop of about 250,000 members in 2010. They will thus add an enormous amount to union dues, which will be spent on (among other things) electing Democrats in the next election cycle. In line to get the lion’s share of those union dues will be Pistole’s boss, Obama. It is very convenient.

Pistole says that the TSA workers won’t have the right to strike or engage in work slowdowns — as if we could tell whether these people are staging a slowdown or not. He also says that the workers won’t have a say in any matter that concerns airport security.

The devil is in the details.

In any case, if Obama is reelected, you can bet that these presumed restrictions will be loosened or eliminated. In the meantime, after the TSA workers unionize, we can expect their wages and benefits to skyrocket, adding significantly to our national deficit. Worse, disciplining lazy or inefficient workers will soon become incredibly difficult, rather like trying to fire incompetent tenured teachers, with the obvious effects on our collective security.

Let us now praise moderate men.




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