The 6 Stages of Backlash Against the TSA's Ridiculous Security Theater

It’s been a mere two-and-a-half weeks since the public backlash against the TSA’s new security measures, including its backscatter machines and “enhanced pat-downs,” started taking off. And oh, how it has taken off. With anti-TSA stories coming at you from every conceivable source – progressive and conservative alike – you could be forgiven for becoming confused about where your ire should be directed.

But not all backlashes are created equal. Or at least, not all anti-TSA backlashes have in mind the best interest of American citizens; some have been little more than attempts by the political right to further a conservative agenda.

So it seems the time has come to separate the wheat from the proverbial chaff on this issue. What follows is an abridged timeline of how the TSA story has been covered, and who’s been behind each brand of outrage.

1. “Don’t touch my junk” story gets early push from right-wing media: John Tyner was by no means the first person to protest the TSA’s invasive body scanners and pat-downs, but it was his now-infamous video footage of his half-hour ordeal with the TSA, in which he implores an agent not to “touch [his] junk,” that helped the story go viral. Soon after, it was revealed that Tyner could face an $11,000 fine for opting out of both the scanner and the pat-down, fueling even more public outrage.

It’s been pointed out, rightly, that the conservative online rag The Drudge Report was responsible for much of the first wave of attention to the Tyner story. Drudge was one of the first outlets to pick up Tyner’s November 13 video, and ever since then the site has consistently pushed TSA outrage, driving huge traffic numbers while furthering its conservative small-government agenda.

No self-respecting progressive wants to be aligned with the likes of Matt Drudge, so some concern about the story’s first major media advocate is completely understandable. However…

2. Legitimate civil rights and privacy concerns pour in: As soon as Tyner’s story started making the rounds, a sea of horror stories about passenger’s experiences with the new security measures started flooding in, raising serious (and legitimate) concerns about whether the measures are safe, constitutional or effective. Scientists have written to Congress arguing that the radiation produced by the TSA body scanners could cause cancer; images from the scanners have been saved and leaked on the Internet; and sexual abuse survivors, senior citizens and other vulnerable individuals have been groped inappropriately during the “enhanced pat-downs,” which many people, including an airline pilots union, have likened to sexual molestation. At the same time, travelers have reported that they’re still able to get sharp objects that could be used as weapons onto planes.

The ACLU alone has received at least 900 complaints from passengers, leading the group to launch a campaign encouraging the Department of Homeland Security to respect travelers’ privacy rights.

3. Fox News, misguided protestors unleash abuse on TSA agents: Fox News and other right-wing media outlets have gravitated towards Drudge’s “don’t tread on me” brand of TSA outrage. That should surprise no one. What’s more unfortunate is that the belligerent tone wielded by conservative pundits has helped fuel an environment in which some opponents of the TSA’s techniques think it’s ok to go after individual TSA agents. Some travelers have been nasty and downright abusive to TSA workers, queuing up for pat-downs unshowered and verbally and physically abusing agents. Even the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, a major proponent of the November 24 National Opt-Out Day protest, suggested that men show up at security checkpoints wearing kilts, sans underwear, to “try to make the day extra-special” for TSA workers.

Not only did some media types suggest that it’s appropriate to fight the “sexual molestation” of the enhanced pat-downs by sexually molesting hapless TSA agents, but they also failed to note that a TSA agent, with a salary starting around $17,000 a year and no collective bargaining power, has virtually no authority to change the airport security system as a whole. (Even though they might want to – with the possible exception of proctologists, what worker wants to feel peoples’ “junk” for a living?)

4. John Tyner as libertarian operative?: With both the left and right arguing that the TSA’s security procedures are bad news, it was inevitable that motives would be questioned on both sides. Sometimes those arguments got messy. A November 23 article in The Nation went so far as to suggest that Tyner’s status as a libertarian who doesn’t believe in voting means he could be a "Washington lobbyist and PR operative posing as [an] 'ordinary citizen' " and his entire TSA scandal may have been manufactured by the Koch brothers.

If there’s genuine “astroturfing” going on here, it’s absolutely worth investigating, but as Salon’s Glenn Greenwald points out, there is little evidence to back that claim up. Furthermore, Greenwald writes, “I don't really care what political label John Tyner applies to himself: we need far more of his civil resistance in our citizenry.”

5. The mainstream media tells us we’re all overreacting: When National Opt-Out Day didn’t cause the mass confusion at airports some people had been predicting, a number of mainstream media outlets were quick to pooh-pooh all anti-TSA coverage as over-hyped and hysterical. The New York Times’ David Carr, for instance, argued that “[t]he pat-down story was the equivalent of vaporware – it seemed as if something huge was about to happen, but it turned out that it was a story about a story, the noisy, fervent sound of a news system feeding on itself….Under all the buzz, 80 percent of Americans traveling were still encountering the same procedures that have been in place for years.”

What opinions like this fail to recognize is…

6. The legitimate concerns over the new TSA security procedures have not disappeared: The TSA’s naked body scanners, with their myriad problems, are not going away; in fact, their numbers are expected to more than double in the coming months. Meanwhile, enhanced pat-downs are as violating and problematic as ever. As Don Hazen wrote last week, many TSA procedures -- especially of people with metal implants -- do little to protect against terrorist threats like the failed underwear bomber.

We can make small tweaks to how the procedures are carried out or stop whining about the issue, as some people have suggested, but that doesn’t address the real problem here: that the backscatters and pat-downs are both unconstitutional and ineffective.

Rather than write off the TSA backlash as a product of shady right-wing operatives or media hype, or worse, look at it as an excuse to privatize airport security, we should find ways to reform the system so it keeps us safe without trampling on our rights. There are ideas for how to do that out there. We can’t let ourselves be distracted by the noise – we owe it to the whole country to figure this one out.


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