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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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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