How the TSA Brought Us Together for the Holidays


If you're at an airport over Thanksgiving, you might hear this Transportation Security Administration announcement over the loudspeaker: "On behalf of 50,000 members of TSA across the country, thank you for being our partners in security."


What they should really be saying is, "We'll be damned if we let anyone tell us we didn't try to inspect as many people's junk as we possibly could."

Americans hollered "Security!" after the 2009 attempted Christmas underwear bombing, and now they've got it.

The collective groan (and not the good kind) that's gone out from the public this holiday travel season in anticipation of their privates being groped and photographed by airport security won't be heeded. Knowing they're on the hook if they leave any — ahem — stones unturned, TSA Administrator John Pistole and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano won't be issuing a pat-down reprieve anytime soon.

But if there's a silver lining here, it's that after a political season in which Americans became sharply divided over how much government they want, the TSA's new (and unfortunately named) Rapiscan full-body-image scanners and intimate pat-downs delivered more "hands on" government than a lot of us would ever have imagined. It accidentally united we, the people, under a common rallying cry: "Don't touch my junk."

So, in the spirit of Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty or give me death" and the don't-tase-me-bro guy's "Don't tase me, bro," I wanted to feel the anti-government outrage when I tested the new procedures at the airport this week, but I didn't quite get the civil liberties showdown I was looking for.

Instead, I experienced a stalemate between condescended-to travelers who just want to get to Grandma's house in time for turkey dinner and disrespected TSA employees who probably can't believe that they're spending their holidays staring at America's "junk" in the hope of preventing another 9/11.


If you were wise enough to avoid the Thanksgiving travel madness this week and didn't have to go through it yourself, here's the drill.

Timing Is Everything

If you're in no particular hurry, then the pat-down is no big deal. But if you're at a packed, pre-holiday airport racing to catch a connecting flight, if you're unusually modest, if you're travelling with a urostomy bag, wheelchair, stroller, prosthesis, pacemaker, or you're allergic to latex gloves, then it might present a problem.


Monday, when lines were still mercifully short, I stepped up to airport security holding my boarding pass, passport and a pocket copy of the Constitution — just in case I had to read them my rights. I declined the scan and requested a pat-down, and although a few agents rolled their eyes, as if to say, "another clown on lane 3," they waved me through, and one of the agents calmly called out for a "male assist."

Then a new guy came out, put on the aforementioned latex gloves and frisked me. He didn't fondle my junk, but he did go all the way up my inseam until he met — ahem — resistance. He gave me the option of going to a private area, but I told him I was o.k.


It was painless and professional. The problem, three-and-a-half minutes later, wasn't that I felt like my freedom had been trampled; it was that I left with the distinct impression that it was all for show. A truly committed evildoer could have probably worked around it.

It's All Relative

Then my inner libertarian was further disappointed by the actual flight. There was a shackled prisoner (really) in the last row of the plane accompanied by three beefy, plain-clothed guards, and clearly, a quick fondling by the TSA was the least of his immediate worries. And there was the hour we were trapped in the plane, on the tarmac, waiting for a gate after we landed — by comparison, the TSA experience was downright luxurious.


Be Careful What You Wish For

Plus, as the Washington Post's Ezra Klein points out, "You can't be the director of homeland security who decreed that passengers could keep their sneakers on and then watched a terrorist finally get a shoe bomb to work at 33,000 feet." As long as the public is going to point the finger of blame at the federal government — up to and including the White House — for any security failure, real or perceived, then they're definitely going to give us more airport security Kabuki theater, not less.


Welcome to "C.Y.A.," Homeland Security-style. Add this one to the list of botched roll-outs, right behind Napolitano's "from day one" response to the Gulf Coast oil spill.

Still, the new security drill is the one thing that might bring Americans of all stripes together this holiday: Everybody — red state or blue — can agree that nobody wants their junk touched (until, you know, they do).


And after looking at a few thousand ugly, naked X-rays and fishing around in a few thousand musty pairs of Levi's, no one at the TSA is going to be happy about it, either.

But even though there's no foolproof way to stop every potential future attack, they'll try anyway. They'd rather get blamed for being too hands-y than for letting the next terrorist attacker sneak by. And they'll be damned if they're going to let anyone say that they didn't try their best to inspect all the junk that they possibly could.


David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

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David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter