Friday, January 02, 2009

A politer TSA scares the hell out of my kid

Airport security personnel are seemingly becoming more pleasant about the performance of their duties. But is a polite shakedown all that much better than the rude version? And as we stroll barefooted through airport security, are there any assurances that the inconveniences we suffer actually make us any safer?

In response to my solicitation for tales of unpleasant encounters with travel security authorities, whether it be the Transportation Security Administration, state or local police or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, James Kobach, a trainer with the TSA in Honolulu, sent a link to an article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The piece emphasizes the dedication of TSA employees at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and the high praise that many passengers have for security screeners' performance.

Well, I'll allow here that my own passage through Phoenix's Skyharbor International Airport was pleasantly devoid of surliness on the part of TSA personnel. In contrast to the tour through North Korea that security checkpoints were just a few years ago, this experience was full of holiday greetings and helpful attitudes as my wife and I manhandled briefcase, coats, carry-on bag and three-year-old through security. (Helpful hint: The kid doesn't go on the conveyor belt.)

Even the half-dozen blue-shirted TSA agents lined up at Gate C-19 were polite as they yanked people from the boarding line for a public shakedown and poke-and-toss through their belongings. Smiles didn't convince anybody to make eye contact with the agents, though, as they trudged forward with their boarding passes in hand, hoping to not be among those chosen for special attention. The woman immediately to my rear was less lucky than me. She was pulled from line.

"Can they do that?" My wife asked. "Isn't that a violation of the Fourth Amendment?" Her approach in these situations is to urge me to calm even as she asks questions that make my blood boil. Well, I happen to think these searches are unconstitutional, but the courts don't agree. Not only are we all subject to search at the airport, we can't even opt to leave the place and give up our seat on the flight to avoid the intrusion once we've entered the secure zone. In 2007, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in United States v. Aukai (PDF):
The constitutionality of an airport screening search, however, does not depend on consent ... and requiring that a potential passenger be allowed to revoke consent to an ongoing airport security search makes little sense in a post-9/11 world.

So those polite agents really can pull us out of line at the gate, and there's really nothing we can do about it. Yeah, they're smiling -- because they know you're stuck. And stuck I was on the return leg from Baltimore, when the first TSA agent we encountered insisted on interrogating my kid. "What's your name, son? Can you tell me your name?" He shuffled through our boarding passes and then started again. "What's your name? Can you tell me?" Ever put a 3 1/2-year-old on the spot? How about one who has been instructed to not talk to strangers?

After a few minutes, once my son surrendered a terrified nod when asked if his name was "Anthony," the TSA's finest let us go. A reminder to the officer that, "he's just three, you know," may or may not have helped. Not surprisingly, once we passed through security, my kid pointed behind us and said, "those people scare me." Well, they scare me, too. And now they've really pissed me off. Way to go folks. You know our country is just a little bit safer when we make toddlers piss their pants.

But what are we getting in return for that intrusive and increasingly heavy-handed (if somewhat better-behaved) security presence at the airport? That's an important question, and the fact is that nobody seems to know the answer. In a paper published almost exactly a year ago in the British Medical Journal, Harvard School of Public Health researchers pointed out:
A systematic search of PubMed, Embase, ISI Web of Science, Lexis, Nexis, JSTOR, and Academic Search Premier (EBSCOhost) found no comprehensive studies that evaluated the effectiveness of x ray screening of passengers or hand luggage, screening with metal detectors, or screening to detect explosives. When research teams requested such information from the US Transportation Security Administration they were told that evaluating new screening programmes might be useful, but it was overshadowed by "time pressures to implement needed security measures quickly."

The paper went on to say:
Even without clear evidence of the accuracy of testing, the Transportation Security Administration defended its measures by reporting that more than 13 million prohibited items were intercepted in one year. Most of these illegal items were lighters.

So, I'm glad that security screeners are becoming more polite. But however good their manners, those are still police state tactics in which they're engaged -- with no proven effectiveness.

Original report here

(And don't forget your ration of Wicked Thoughts for today)

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