I am frequently stopped on the street and asked for directions. In my volunteer stints I quickly establish an easy rapport with the diverse people with whom I come in contact. I get warm returning smiles in shops and restaurants. In short: most people apparently view me as non-threatening. It has thus been surprising to learn that in the eyes of the TSA I am viewed as but a common criminal, and may be treated accordingly, with impunity and without recourse.
My adult stepson and I traveled together last week to the Midwest. As we made our way through security at the Oakland airport, I was directed towards one of the new, “enhanced” screening machines. Being aware of the health concerns these untested machines have raised—especially given my having undergone medical X-rays earlier in the week—I refused. As the TSA agents held me in waiting for the “female assist,” for the “pat-down,” I advised them that they might, in the interest of their own health and safety, want to investigate the dangers of working near the machines.
My stepson had preceded me through security through the regular screening machine, and as I was ordered to “assume the position,” took out his camera phone to record the proceedings. A TSA Officer told him to stop, and when my stepson asked on what authority, was told that it is against TSA “procedures.” I advised my stepson to not argue with the agent and he quit recording. Meanwhile, from the moment I was stopped to go through the enhanced screening machine, throughout the “pat-down,” and as we left the area, I carried on an extremely loud, running verbal protest against the proceedings as invasive and unconstitutional, attracting the attention of other passengers in the area—most of whom looked uncomfortably away.
Once “cleared,” my stepson and I went to the boarding area, then boarded our flight and settled down in our seats near the rear of the plane. Ten minutes prior to take-off, a blue-uniformed TSA Supervisor, accompanied by two men wearing brown uniforms (21st-century Brownshirts?), and a man in a plain suit came down the aisle and told my stepson he had to go with them. I explained that he had simply been trying to provide loving support as I resisted being treated as a criminal, and outlined the urgency of our trip. The plain-suited official told the TSA Supervisor that all they needed was name and flight information, so I handed him our boarding passes, bearing both. The TSA Supervisor officiously insisted we had to leave the plane with him. With take-off time growing ever closer, we accompanied the four agents to the jetway, where a large, second plain-suited man and an airport/airline employee who looked like a baggage handler also waited. Both left as I launched into a protest of the proceedings.
The four men who had boarded the plane encircled us on the jetway just outside the plane. The plain-suited official reiterated that all they needed was name and flight information—which they had in hand—but the TSA Supervisor insisted he needed our drivers licenses. As he recorded our information from these on his clipboarded form, I recorded the names of the officials present from their ID badges: the blue-uniformed TSA Supervisor Darrel Robinson and plain-clothed Supervisory Transportation Security Officer Michael Simmons.
After Supervisor Robinson had returned our drivers licenses, I asked if we were free to reboard, to which he gruffly replied “In a minute.” After a few more moments, we were “released,” and reboarded the plane without further ado. As I later learned, this constitutes being under arrest, and I guess time will tell to what extent I now have a “record,” since I was advised of nothing, provided no information as to why we had been summarily ordered off of our flight, or to what use our identification information was going to be made.
Yet the entire incident made absolutely no sense: following our having cleared security, my stepson and I had spent at least 25 minutes in the waiting area of the small Oakland airport, on a day with few passengers travelling, and thus could have been easily approached well before we boarded the flight. We had already been cleared—even through their enhanced security techniques—and had thus established, by their own standards, our innocence and the safety of the other passengers. We had violated no laws: TSA’s own website says:
TSA does not prohibit the public, passengers or press from photographing, videotaping or filming at security checkpoints, as long as the screening process is not interfered with or slowed down.
My stepson was sitting, 6 feet away from where my person was being violated during the “pat-down,” and turned off his cell camera when told to by a male TSA agent not involved in the procedure—if this slowed down their process it was by their discomfort with having their actions recorded, not our interference.
Yet this uniformed contingent chose to board the plane after all of the flight’s passengers had been seated, to make an extremely public show of escorting us from the plane, enacting proceedings heretofore understood to be those reserved for suspected criminals, in front a captive audience.
What other possible purpose, then, than a very deliberate, public show of force making it clear to all witnessing the spectacle that those who will not submit quietly will be made examples of?
But such bullying is not the least unpredictable. Investing petty clerks with arbitrary and unchecked powers always leads to their visiting ever-increasing humiliations and violence on the politically impotent. As this past 10 years of escalating “homeland security” well confirms, thuggery not resisted grows ever more bold. Tunisia’s recent uprising may have been sparked by a young man who set fire to himself after being harassed by a low-level government official, as Egypt’s was by three policemen killing a young man posting evidence of their petty corruption on YouTube, but the fuel for each had been built up over decades of tyrannies small and great. The only question here is how far down the road we blessed with a heritage of security in our own persons and property will quietly submit before turning on “our” Brownshirts and saying “No. Go.”