Did I have to endure the loss of my luggage for an extended period of
time or sleep overnight in the airport because of the notoriously bad
winter weather in Chicago? No, it was something much worse.
Ominously, I received a boarding pass inscribed with
“SSSS”—bureaucratese for winning (really losing) the lottery for a spot
in the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) special security
At first, a flash of paranoia gripped me and I wondered if I was
being singled out for government harassment because of a column I wrote
awhile back criticizing the TSA’s airport security procedures. Or could
it have been that the government didn’t like my many anti-Iraq War
Finally, I realized my ego was inflating my importance to the
government and that the special inspection was probably related to the
airline check-in attendant’s offer to put me on an earlier flight. (If I
get those same nefarious S’s during the two other air trips I’ve
scheduled during the Yuletide season, I may reconsider my original, more
I began to wonder why changing a flight raises a red flag with the
authorities. Don’t millions of people do this everyday in the United
States because of inclement weather, changes in their schedules, or
mechanical problems with aircraft? Besides, before 9/11, instead of
changing flights, the terrorists repeatedly took the same flights to
size them up for attack.
And while we’re at it, the government is soon apparently going to
allow airline passengers to once again carry onboard the knives,
scissors, fingernail clippers, etc., that were banned after 9/11.
Apparently, authorities now believe that blowing up planes with bombs is
a bigger threat that hijacking them and running them into buildings.
Does this mean that they were wrong about the major threat for years
after 9/11 or that TSA is merely trying to find an excuse to lessen some
of the most unpopular security measures that have threatened the agency
with bureaucratic extinction?
Finally, although the courts (never ones to stick up for the
Constitution) have allowed authorities to search all people and their
things at airports and roadblocks designed to catch drunk drivers
without “probable cause,” don’t such general searches explicitly violate
the Fourth Amendment?
Oops, such commonsense questions by any thinking air traveler can
only make one skeptical of the government’s efforts to provide genuine
security. They can also make your life miserable.
After having all of these thoughts as I went through the regular
security screening, which entailed stepping through a metal detector and
the usual scan of my luggage and my shoes, I was a bit annoyed when I
reached the additional screening area.
Although I held my tongue, my annoyance must have shown as the TSA
inspector made me do yoga-style contortions while he ran a wand over me,
patted me down all over, and felt down the front of my pants
(unbelievable, but true).
Apparently, this gross violation of privacy is deemed acceptable to
the government as long as a person of the same gender is inflicting it
on the victim. Any ordinary citizen could be arrested for such behavior.
Furthermore, the minimal—if any—added security provided by these
additional intrusive measures is certainly not worth the personal
violation. And my annoyance was rewarded by having my bag thoroughly
ransacked—even though it had already been scanned electronically—with
personal items strewn about and not repacked. Luckily, on this trip, I
was not carrying holiday packages, which would have been unwrapped and
On my return trip, I discovered, much to my horror, that these
“random” inspections are not so random. When the agent gave me my
boarding pass, it again had the ominous S’s on it. I asked her why I had
been selected again for this torture. She said that I would have to ask
I then asked the TSA special inspector why supposedly random
searches—presumably designed to deter terrorists from bringing nefarious
items onto a plane and actually catch some of them doing it—target the
same people on both their outbound and return trip. I noted that if I
hadn’t tried to commit a terrorist act on the outbound trip, the
probability that I would do so on the return flight was low.
When I said that spot-checking a greater number of people, rather
than the same ones, would be likely to net more terrorists, the only
thing the befuddled inspector could say was that the airlines, not TSA,
made the decisions about who to search.
All of this has reinforced my original skepticism that most of these
security measures are make-believe—merely governmental efforts to show
the public that “something” is being done about terrorism.
Airline hijackings and bombings have always been very rare and, even
after 9/11, the average air traveler has a miniscule chance of ever
being involved in such an incident. But unfortunately, this holiday
season, the governmental Grinch gives us the gift that keeps on giving:
Ivan Eland is a Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute,
Director of the Institute’s
Center on Peace &
Liberty, and author of the books
The Empire Has No Clothes, and
Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.