Initial Conclusions on Public Resistance to the TSA


This serves as a quasi research update. The current dissertation chapter I am working on studies public resistance to the TSA by tracking public and official discourse about videos passengers have shot of their screening process. You can see an example of one such video here. In this video a women claims to have been detained by the TSA, and forced to miss her flight because of her attitude towards the TSA. I have yet to assess the veracity of this video.

One important trend among the videos in my study is that many of them claim in captions, blogs, and stories to show malfeasance on the part of the TSA while there was none or there was inappropriate actions taken by both agents and the passenger. I point this out because as stories of the heavy handed TSA circulate; critiques of the agency must be grounded in actual policy disagreements and agent malfeasance, not a mythos of rumored misdeeds. For example, a widely circulated video claims to show a young child being strip searched by the TSA at Salt Lake City International Airport. In reality, the child’s father took of the child’s shirt in an attempt to expedite the process. I am, by no means, trying to buffer the TSA from criticism, but my research points to a pernicious degree to which videos of this type are often said to show one thing even when they mean another. That said, a number of videos and stories exist that document instances of questionable actions by the TSA.

I offer seven preliminary conclusions based on what my research has found so far. This reads as some tough-love for TSA critics. Please do not assume I am fawning for the TSA, I have much to say to them as well.

1. The larger issue with TSA critics is that they argue privatization is the solution. Why is corporate surveillance preferred to State?

An undercurrent within critiques of the TSA is a specifically anti-government anti-big brother sentiment. Given the TSA’s techniques of surveillance (I discuss their surveillance technology in my dissertation’s previous chapter and their rituals and performances of surveillance in the next chapter), concern over surveillance is not unfounded. However, while I freely admit state surveillance is problematic I cannot accept that corporate surveillance is necessarily a better outcome. First, even in places where the TSA is using private companies to perform security screenings they use the same procedures as the TSA. Nothing has changed and it is unlikely that most consumers or the government would want to relax security restrictions any time soon. Second, a profit motive adds alternative drives for monitoring and data collection. These are different from the state’s desire to watch our bodies but are nonetheless disconcerting.

2. Absent a successful legal challenge, what would motivate Congress to dismantle the TSA?

This issue comes down to a basic burden of proof. The TSA has a remarkable safety record. How do we know that? We don’t. As long as the agency can show an effective record in securing our air infrastructure without large scale resistance from political moderates there is little political will to change the TSA’s mandate. Additionally, many assert the TSA is unconstitutional. While there are legal challenges underway, critics must become more nuanced than to claim it is unconstitutional because I say so. Knowing your rights is absolutely critical, but knowing them as the law defines them is more important than how you think the law ought to define them.

3. Those who call everything the TSA does security theater ignore the agency’s ability to cope with real threats & post 9/11 innovations.

Since 9/11 airport security has undergone a massive change in it techniques for securing our air transportation infrastructure. That said, the TSA is not an impenetrable wall of security and critics have taken to calling its efforts security theater to claim it is more about creating the appearance of security than actual security. I offer a more substantive critique of this in my research, not that I wholly dismiss it but I offer an alternative read. That said, some techniques that have been added post 9/11 may offer more advantages to the screening process. That does not make them inherently good, but it does mean critics need to be more nuanced than it is all security theater. Also, that does not mean the TSA should have unlimited fiat. The conversation must cease to be all or nothing.

4. Critics can’t claim the TSA violates their constitutional rights & demand the agency violate the Equal Protection clause.

Again, the TSA’s actions are not unconstitutional simply because you say so. I am fully sympathetic that most frustrations with the TSA begin with a simple premise: I pose no risk to this flight so why should I face any added scrutiny? However, your knowledge that you pose no risk and the TSA’s appraisal of you are two very different things. Moreover, many critics argue for implementing racial profiling. Not only does this violate the equal protection clause (note the irony for angst about constitutional violations) but it ignores the insurgent and adaptable tactics of terrorism as a technique for violence making.

5. Both critics & the TSA must cope with the fact that threats innovate, thus children, the elderly, etc become attractive means for terror.

This may seem redundant with the previous point, however, the people and means by which threats are brought to airports and aircraft are malleable. This is why profiling is ineffective.

6. While criticizing the TSA critics need to, at some point, address the number of weapons routinely found at checkpoints. Threats persist.

I am fascinated by the number of reports of handguns found by the TSA each week. You should follow @TSAblogteam on twitter if you don’t already. While the strange items they find attract the most attention, the number of weapons they find as a matter of course is surprising. While there is an argument to be made that these can be found without enhanced pat downs and whole body imaging technology, or without the TSA altogether, something is driving the desire to arm the friendly skies. As a side not, I am not saying guns are inherently bad.

7. We need robust discourse about the TSA across our society and it’s value in securing our transportation infrastructure.

We are just passing the ten-year anniversary mark for many airports ramping up their TSA operations. TSA security has become a fixture in contemporary American airports and they largely dictate how we fly. The conversation about the TSA has been largely driven by official PR work, a scattering of news stories dictated by that PR work and by legitimate issues within the TSA, and by a great many critics who trend towards the hyperbolic rather than the substantive.

A polarized debate driven by the issues I have identified above is rather unproductive. For example, those who argue that the TSA is “proudly molesting grandma’s & little kids since super-lez napolatino took office” delegitimize resistance. Aside from the personal attacks and the hate speech. I point to this tweet in particular because of the continued, and perplexing, argument that the TSA is associated somehow with advancing a homosexual agenda (See here & here). Whatever that argument means. Critics of the TSA need to engage with the agency in less hostile, personal, and hyperbolic ways that make use of material harms and congressional channels. Such efforts can maximize passenger angst and moderate dissatisfaction over fringe anti-state assumptions and hostile rhetoric.

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Filed under Cultural Studies, Research, Rhetoric, TSA, Uncategorized

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