Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Traveling With The TSA- An Uncomfortable Infringement on Personal Liberty

Several weeks ago, I went to Vermont to spend a few days with my aunts. I flew both ways (despite my concerns about Ebola...) which led me to have two lovely opportunities to encounter the Transportation Security Administration, better known as the TSA.

Every time I fly, I wear my homemade Fourth Amendment shirt.


The Fourth Amendment states:

Many argue that simply choosing to fly on an airplane is not considered "probable cause". Furthermore, the body imaging system used by the TSA has raised many concerns. Is it acceptable for an agent to see a fairly detailed scan of passengers' bodies in the line of duty? How long are these images stored, and how secure is the storage?

These concerns have led many people to choose to opt out of going through the scanner. People who opt out of the scan will instead be patted down manually by a TSA officer of the same gender.

I have always chosen to opt out and have always been treated respectfully by agents. However, many horror stories of uncomfortable pat-downs have emerged, illustrating that choosing between the scan and the pat down comes down to a matter of personal opinion of the lesser of two evils.

On my trip to Vermont, the TSA agent who pushes bags through the x-ray machine stared at my shirt and asked "What's the Fourth Amendment?"

I politely replied, "Protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, sir."

He said, "Oh. I don't remember any of that stuff. I can't remember geography or the Constitution or anything."

Not knowing how to reply, I simply informed him that I would like to opt out of the scanning machine. He called for a female agent to come pat me down. While I waited, he continued his earlier conversation.

"Out of curiosity, how old are you?"

I answered "22," not really sure where he was headed. He looked like he was in his mid-20s.

"And you remember all that stuff from school? I don't remember any of that. I went to college and I was on the Honor Roll and everything. But now I forgot it all. I don't even remember what an apostrophe is. I want to go back to school to remember it all. For my kids." He then proceeded to show me an adorable picture of his sons.

At that point, the officer performing my pat-down arrived and I proceeded through the gate. I was glad that my shirt prompted such a lovely conversation with a very nice man and I wish him the best of luck with his further education.

However, I find it both sad and disconcerting that a government employee does not know basic facts about the US Constitution, and that someone specifically charged with searching people and their belongings doesn't know the rights of people being searched.

As I stepped into the area where I would be patted down, I passed by another male agent. He, too, stared at my shirt, but apparently he knew what the Fourth Amendment is.

"You love the Fourth Amendment, huh?" He asked.

I said, "Yes, sir, I do," in a firm tone and smiled politely.

He smirked back at me and replied, "Well, you should be careful here, then, if you love the Fourth Amendment." I passed through the security checks without difficulty, but the agent’s words made me feel distinctly uncomfortable.

On the return trip, none of the TSA employees commented on my shirt. Like many of the people I have encountered in Vermont, they were both professional and very friendly. They smiled warmly as they requested that I put the fancy soap I had just purchased in a separate tray. Yes, it was bar soap, not liquid. But apparently bar soap resembles some form of explosive material, so it had to be swabbed down and tested for explosive residue. (Well, it'll be a funny story to tell Grammy when she opens the sea salt soap I bought for her for Christmas...)

Another object in my bag caused concern as well. This was a small box of loose tea, still in its original sealed wrapper, that I was very excited to buy because they don't have this type of tea at the store where I usually shop. Unfortunately, it is a type of green tea known as gunpowder tea. (Pause for facepalm). Because the packaging contained the word "gunpowder", it had to be swabbed for explosive residue.

When one of the TSA agents explained this to me, I stared at him in shock for a moment, then said, "It's tea. Green tea. Gunpowder green tea." I then remembered that being difficult with the TSA can get you arrested, so I smiled and said, "I was really excited to find it. They don't sell it at my normal tea store."

The agent smiled understandingly at my annoyance. "Yeah, we just have to check. Did you get it at the little tea store downtown? That's a nice place." After he finished testing it, he handed the tea back to me, declaring, "The tea is tea."

In many ways, the search of belongings creates a false sense of security while still allowing potentially dangerous materials aboard. Gunpowder green tea is considered a potential threat, but I boarded both flights with Size 6 knitting needles in my carry-on bag. The needles are metal, about 10 inches long, and pointy enough that they can easily be used as a stabbing weapon if enough force is applied. (I have proof of this. Don't stick your hand into a bag of yarn if you're not sure what else is in it.)

Furthermore, even though some TSA agents are lovely people, others are not. It is distressing to see some of the people that our government has selected to search through our belongings and pat us down. Men and women who either do not know the laws governing the rights of citizens or, even worse, who know that what they are doing is an infringement upon these rights and think it is acceptable to make jokes about it.

The main lesson I took from my latest experiences with the TSA is that the agents are simply people. Some are friendly, some are not. They have different interests and personalities. They are not villains who enjoy violating our rights and rifling through our belongings.

Still, the system of airport screenings requires major improvements. People are automatically treated as potential criminals simply because they have chosen to fly on an airplane. Invasive scanning methods must be reevaluated to protect the dignity and privacy of customers while still ensuring safety. The constitutional rights of individuals still apply, even when there is a potential safety threat. In fact, it is for times of danger that these safeguards on liberty were established.

Although the 5th of November is long past, I’m still in the right month, so I will close this post with a quote from one of my favourite movies, “V for Vendetta”, a quote that perfectly illustrates the flaws of the TSA’s scare tactics.

People should not be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.

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