Politics

‘Don’t grope me’: The roots of the TSA groping backlash explained

Mike Riggs Contributor

On Oct. 29, a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agent was going about his business when a middle-aged Jewish man in spectacles walked through his checkpoint at Baltimore-Washington International airport. Unlike most passengers, the Atlantic’s Jeff Goldberg wasn’t in a hurry. In fact, he was a little hard to get rid of. He wanted to talk to the TSA agent and his colleagues about the new x-ray machines they were using to screen passengers, as well as the alternative: A physical search that requires agents to grope passengers’ thighs until they meet resistance.

After submitting to the pat-down, Goldberg walked to his gate, broke out his laptop, and published a blog post outlining the TSA’s newest screening procedure.

“For the First Time, the TSA Meets Resistance” was the first sloughing sheet of snow in what would soon be an avalanche.

Two weeks later, California resident John Tyner refused to surrender his civil liberties in exchange for boarding a plane at San Diego International Airport. “If you touch my junk,” Tyner told a TSA agent who was preparing to pat him down, “I will have you arrested.”

Like Goldberg’s post, Tyner’s video of his altercation with San Diego TSA agents quickly went viral. In the days since, anecdotes about nasty run-ins with over-zealous and poorly trained TSA agents have popped up everywhere.

Pulitzer-winning humorist Dave Barry appeared on NPR to explain his own groping experience. When the former Miami Herald’s columnist’s groin didn’t show up clearly in the x-ray image, a TSA agent pulled him aside for additional screening.

“Well, they take you in this little room. And it’s an unpleasant little room. The man is putting on the blue gloves. He’s telling me how he’s going to touch me. And he makes a big point about when he’s going to be using the front of his hand and when he’s going to be using the back of his hand,” Barry told NPR’s Melissa Block.

“And then while I was in there the other guy with the boarding pass came in. And he says, oh, you’re Dave Barry. I’m a big fan. And so I had this kind of surreal conversation with one guy telling me what a big fan he is … and the other guy is groping me.”

Television stations and newspapers have responded to the outpouring of anecdotes by asking questions they could’ve — and should’ve — asked at any point over the last nine years; about the effectiveness of the TSA’s screening procedures, about the rights of passengers, about the best use of resources in the War on Terror.

“It’s about time,” said world-renowned security technologist Bruce Schneier. “I was wondering when this would happen; when people would say, ‘Enough. This is just plain stupid.’”

Goldberg concurs. “Why did I write the thing that I wrote two weeks ago? Because I was told that the checkpoint pat-down procedures were going to be intensified. I don’t know why other people picked it up. I think it might be one of these ‘enough already’ moments.”

Since September 2001, Americans have suffered myriad inconveniences at the behest of their government. When the Transportation Safety Administration told us to take off our shoes, our belts and our glasses, we took them off. When they asked our parents and grandparents to prove their knees and hips had been replaced with metal simulacra, our parents and grandparents deferentially rolled up their pants legs and showed them their scars. When the TSA told us we could travel with cigarettes, but not lighters; with toothbrushes, but not toothpaste; we said, “Can’t put a price on safety. Guess I will pay $5 for a Mickey Mouse lighter when I get to Orlando.”

Last week, after nine years of Americans playing Mr. Rogers before boarding their flights, something changed. Tyner’s last straw became your and my last straw as well.

In the wake of Tyner’s video and Golberg’s post, the TSA has fumbled around for an explanation. But it’s unlikely to come up with anything that will satisfy critics who now have outrage on their side thanks to any one of several catalysts. And the high-profile stories have kept on coming.

On Tuesday night, Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller fame posted a story on his blog about a TSA agent frisking his groin. “A security guy came over,” Jillete wrote. “I assumed the position. I had a button up shirt on that was untucked. He reached around while he was behind me and grabbed around my front pocket. I guess he was going for my flashlight, but the area could have loosely been called ‘crotch.’”

After the pat-down, Jillette asked the TSA agent to call the Las Vegas Police, so that the magician and staunch libertarian could press charges for assault. It was Tyner redux and more evidence that American passengers are finally able to draw a line in the sand when it comes to trading their freedom and privacy for the perception of security.

“Why now? Why not ‘take off your shoes’?” Schneier told The Daily Caller. “Why not the liquid ban? Maybe because this is just so egregious and so invasive?”

Goldberg, who wrote a feature-length criticism of the TSA back in 2008, points to the Oct. 29 announcement and the San Diego incident as catalyzing forces. Then again, maybe the revolution is happening only online: A poll released by CBS on Monday found that 81 percent of respondents saw airport body scanners as important security measures.

But even if the backlash is taking place solely on the web, and solely among people who were mostly opposed to the TSA before being groped, lawmakers seem to be listening, and Republican Rep. John Mica (an author of the bill that created TSA) is taking up the TSA’s screening procedures.

But will anything actually change IRL?

“I don’t have the faintest clue what will happen next,” Schneier said. “But it’ll be fun to watch.”

In the meantime, TSA’s challengers will continue to rally around a catchphrase born on the web: “Don’t grope me.”