I traveled to Hartford, Connecticut last week for a conference. It was the first time since the start of the pandemic that I had the pleasure of being pawed by TSA agents. Alas, since 2020, neither I nor the Transportation Security Administration have become corrigible.
Flying out of Washington National Airport on Thursday, I saw a special entry for the CLEAR program that enables people who pay $189 a year to skip TSA lines. I lambasted this program here back in December. Travelers stand in photo kiosks that compare their face with a federal database of photos from passport applications, drivers’ licenses ,and other sources. TSA promises that its new airport regime will respect Americans’ privacy. Fat chance: TSA previously promised no traveler would be delayed more than 10 minutes at TSA checkpoints.
I stood and watched semi-frazzled travelers enter a roped-off expanse to get TSA approval for their visage.
A skinny young woman with a CLEAR t-shirt and a clipboard was standing guard at the entrance of the biometric site. She looked like a cherub with long straight red hair and a welcoming smile. Who could suspect that, as The Washington Post warned, the new system could be “America’s biggest step yet to normalize treating our faces as data that can be stored, tracked and, inevitably, stolen”?
“How soon will they be making the biometric checks mandatory?” I asked her.
“I don’t know anything about that,” she replied, as if I’d asked about the surface temperature of the planet Venus.
“Do people ever complain about having to do the biometric checks?
“No, this is voluntary,” she replied with a smile wider than a Kamala Harris grimace.
She was a good Washingtonian: she could never imagine any federal agency flogging hell out of the Constitution. I considered peppering her with another half dozen questions but wanted to keep my sarcasm fresh for dealing with TSA agents. My hunch was that the redheaded cherub was not a regular reader of the Libertarian Institute.
I finished guzzling my morning coffee I fetched from home and tossed the used Gatorade bottle into the giant trash barrel at the entrance to the TSA queue. The previous time I went through a TSA checkpoint at National Airport, TSA agents got riled up because I forgot to take off my belt. That spurred an enhanced patdown, a verbal brawl, and an article I wrote that the Minneapolis Star Tribune headlined, “The World’s Most Incompetent Agency.”
Seeking to avoid another kerfuffle, I sought to comply with the TSA checkpoint regimen.
I took off my boots and belt and took all the medal clutter out of my pockets.
I passed through and—beep—another alarm. WTF?
A TSA agent pointed to the giant video screen on the controlled side of the checkpoint, revealing a bright yellow splotch that proved that my derriere failed federal inspection.
“That’s my wallet,” I said.
“You aren’t allowed to have that in the scanner. We have to do a patdown.”
So I’m supposed to abandon my wallet to rascals notorious for robbing travelers? More than 500 TSA agents have been fired for stealing laptops, cell phones, and other property at checkpoints and in luggage screening.
Another TSA agent shuffled up to find my terrorist contraband. This dude was in his 20s but he looked weary before his time. He explained that he would perform a supplemental enhanced patdown on my backside.
“Are you going to jam my groin?” I growled.
“No, we’re not going to do that.”
“Yeah, OK, whatever.”
He proceeded to run his hands and his TSA Terrorist Catcher Magic Wand over my thighs and butt. I refrained from muttering that he got further than I usually did on first dates long ago. He then checked the inside of my thighs and signaled I could leave. I kept my profanity in reserve for the return flight.
Coming back through Hartford on Sunday afternoon, I was chagrined to see a long line of docile folks waiting to receive TSA blessings. I entered the queue and a scrawny, 70ish guy with his right arm in a sling came in behind me. He was struggling with his carry-on bag so I guessed his arm injury was recent.
He groused that he had paid for TSA Pre-Check but they hadn’t allowed him to use it that day. TSA Pre-Check customers usually avoid Whole Body Scanners—another reminder that the entire system is a charade.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“I’m going to Washington but I don’t work for the feds.”
“Good,” he replied. He said he was going to Fort Lauderdale and I said that was a helluva friendlier place than D.C.
Over the years, I enjoy drawing out folks to see if they recognize TSA’s “security theater.” This guy got it.
I mentioned that I might have problems today at the checkpoint because TSA hates me.
“Why do they hate you?” he asked.
“Because I have flogged them in print for 20 years. Their scanners fail to catch mock bombs and weapons in 95% of the tests by undercover agents. Their explosive detection tests are so harebrained that they are triggered by hand sanitizer. The TSA chief denounced me for maligning and disparaging TSA employees.”
“But I don’t know why they would ever suspect me because I was a Boy Scout.”
He laughed and said he’d been a Scout as well. “But your hat makes you suspicious,” he added.
It was a bulky brown hat I’d recently picked up in Tennessee. I didn’t realize till afterwards that it was the “Bootlegger” design. I said that if I was flying out of North Carolina, my hat would fit right in. But here in Connecticut, I was screwed.
As we got near the checkpoint, I tugged off my belt and began unlacing my heavy boots. “You can go ahead of me—this will take awhile,” I told the elderly gentleman.
“No, no—you go first,” he insisted. He absolutely, positively did not want to go just before me.
As I stood waiting my cameo in the Whole Body Scanner, I heard him explain to a TSA agent that he had metal knee and hip replacements. They signaled for him to step through a side gate next to the scanner.
I ambled into the screener radiating as much disdain as I could muster on a Sunday afternoon. A TSA agent barked that my feet were in the wrong place; I had to make sure I put my socks in the cut-out drawing. Yeah, yeah…
“Hold your arms up higher,” she ordered.
That woman sounded as dumb as my high school gym teacher.
She signaled me to exit and then another agent came up with a TSA magic wand and signaled that I must halt.
“We have to check you,” a tall, spindly young guy announced.
“What was the problem?” I growled.
“The scanner alerted for something around your shoulders and upper arms.”
I have been working on my bench press lately but I didn’t think the results were that impressive.
He waved the wand and found nothing and signaled I could move along.
“What might have triggered the alert?” I asked.
“I dunno. It could have been the heavy shirt.”
Maybe they thought the wool in my shirt came from sheep that were raised by Al Qaeda in Yemen?
As I tracked down my carry-on bag and boots on the carousel, I saw a TSA agent barking orders to the old guy with the arm in a sling.
“Do you want the supplemental screening to take place here or in a private room?” the TSA agent with a vapid visage badgered him.
I was tempted to shout: don’t go in the private room! But the guy had good instincts and said on his own that he wanted the patdown in public. At least it would be videotaped if the process went to hell in a handbasket.
The agent kept going up and down the old guy with the wand, poking and prodding and repeatedly ordering him to change his posture. The man looked humiliated at being treated like a terrorist suspect in front of so many bystanders. I don’t have that reaction to extra patdowns because I don’t give a damn for the opinions of TSA agents or anyone who happily submits to their boneheaded antics. But I could tell from the expression on the guy’s face that he was shocked.
He was finally released from TSA custody and shuffled with his shoes and belts to a nearby bench. As he was putting himself back together, I came up to offer condolences.
“I think it was the sling—that’s why they targeted me,” he said.
“They could have easily checked if you had a bomb or a gun in the sling without groping you all over but they didn’t do that,” I scoffed.
He put his head down and wished me a good trip.
“As a fellow American, I’m sorry how they treated you.”
My comment seemed to stun him. But more than twenty years after 9/11, TSA has no right to continue treating Americans like convicts waiting to enter a prison shower. TSA has taken menstruating women to private rooms to force them to lower their pants to prove they are bleeding—an abuse that has spurred multiple federal lawsuits. TSA effectively claims that Americans have no constitutional rights because they “voluntarily” submit to searches for permission to fly. That legal hogwash entitles them to endlessly harass hapless citizens.
Despite squeezing millions of butts and boobs, TSA has never caught a real terrorist. TSA should be abolished and replaced by the type of private security companies that protect European and Canadian fliers without endless BS from officialdom.