An Open Letter on a Bewildering TSA Experience

I am a staunch opponent and skeptic of the TSA. I believe there’s no convincing evidence that the agency is effective at either saving lives or stopping terrorist attacks, and that in fact there’s mounting evidence that the TSA is ineffective at its primary goal of preventing weapons from getting through security checkpoints. The costs of the TSA both in terms of dollars as well as the routine inconvenience and privacy violations that passengers experience are enormous and undeniable whereas the benefits are negligible. In fact the TSA may even be counterproductive to its main mission, as its possible if not likely that airports and private security companies would be better equipped to keep passengers safe and adapt to constantly evolving threats than a massive, encumbered nationwide bureaucracy like the TSA. Not to mention that TSA-related costs and inconveniences may dissuade people from flying so that they drive instead, which results in indisputable risks and deaths given that driving is far more dangerous than flying.

Yet I’m not writing today to complain about the TSA in general, but rather about a particularly bewildering experience at a TSA checkpoint in Las Vegas McCarran airport on 6/16/2015 that is an excellent example of the ineptitude and nonsensical policies of the TSA. I opted out of the body scanner to receive a patdown as I usually do when travelling – a personal protest against what I perceive as needless invasion of people’s privacy posed by the body scanners. When I was escorted to the patdown area, I was also notified that my carry-on bag would need to be inspected. I knew immediately what in my bag triggered the inspection, two small cans of apple and orange juice that I’d intended to drink before getting to the airport. These were indeed the problem items and I asked if I could drink them on the spot rather than throw them out since I was quite thirsty. I was told that no, I couldn’t, unless I wanted to go back outside, drink them there, and then come back in and repeat the security process. I was also told that if I did opt to drink them I would have to go through the patdown procedure twice, right there and then also upon reentering security.

The famous quote from Patrick Henry, after all, is “Give me liberty or give me death” and not “Give me liberty but not if it means slightly inconveniencing myself.”

I was torn. Going back outside, standing in line, presenting ID, taking off my footwear, emptying my pockets, taking out my laptop, waiting for an agent to pat me down, and then actually being patted down all over again posed a major inconvenience and waste of time. Then again, my flight was already delayed and I sincerely wanted to drink that juice – plus I’m not usually one to to easily give in to pointlessly oppressive government policies. The famous quote from Patrick Henry, after all, is “Give me liberty or give me death” and not “Give me liberty but not if it means slightly inconveniencing myself.” I asked if I could mull the decision over while I was being patted down, but was told that no, I must decide right then and there. Very well, I opted to go through the ordeal and save my juice. By now, in my mind the juice was not merely concentrated fruit extract mixed with filtered water, but a metaphor for the rights and liberties that Americans before me willingly gave their lives for.

I received an unusually thorough patdown despite my very light clothing, with five instances of direct contact to my genitals. Of course, I don’t mind strangers brushing up against my genitals all that much (or at least less than I mind needlessly conceding my liberties) otherwise I wouldn’t bother with the patdown procedure in the first place. I always try to be cordial with TSA agents I interact with and the agent patting me down returned my friendliness. I could tell from his tone that he recognized the absurdity of the policies surrounding my decision to drink my juice, and I asked him what would be the best way for me to try to change these policies. He laughed and told me that it’s never going to change, and that I could write my congressman or comment on the TSA website but that it wouldn’t do a thing. He said it would be a meaningless drop in a bucket, although if you’re reading this you know that didn’t discourage me from trying anyway.

[The TSA agent] laughed and told me that it’s never going to change, and that I could write my congressman or comment on the TSA website but that it wouldn’t do a thing.

I then packed my bag and was escorted through the passenger area of the airport back out to the main terminal where I repeated the security procedure all over again, although not before I enjoyed my beverages and, more importantly, the freedom to drink them. The same agent patted me down again, and again he made direct contact with my genitals on five occasions. I was then free to go, so I recycled the now empty cans in my backpack and made it to my gate on time. I hold no ill will to the agent who patted me down and put me through this ordeal, as he was just doing his job and despite more contact with my genitals than I’d received in my first 16 years of life he was actually quite accommodating, friendly, and earnest.

Now let me break down the most baffling aspects of the policies I encountered to illustrate why they must be changed.

  • What valid reason is there to deny passengers the option of drinking liquids that they take through security with them instead of discarding them? I was allowed to handle my cans of juice, but for some reason I couldn’t drink their contents? If there is some threat posed by me drinking the liquid, then why is it OK for me to drink that very same liquid and be allowed into the secured area?
  • If the juice is indeed considered too much of a potential threat to let me drink it on the spot, then how is it safe enough to give the cans back to me and escort me back to the security line where I’d be within close distance of 50-100 passengers? How is it safe to discard them in regular trash cans in a crowded area?
  • Why must I be patted down twice if I opt to drink my beverages? I was escorted back out to the security checkpoint anyhow, what is the point of patting me down before that?
  • Although this was relatively minor, if I must be patted down regardless of whether I discard my drinks or choose to drink them, why can’t I make that decision after the patdown? I strongly question whether this is even an actual TSA policy, or whether the lady who had my bag was just flaunting her power over me.

I don’t think there are any good answers to any of my questions (if there are I’d like to hear them) and for that reason I believe these policies must be changed. Better yet, the TSA’s entire procedures should be completely overhauled to minimize pointless inconveniences and intrusions. Best of all, the TSA should be disbanded entirely and replaced by private parties – parties that have major vested interests in keeping both airports and airplanes safe while simultaneously keeping their procedures efficient and convenient for passengers.

A generation of Americans are growing up being conditioned to unjustified government intrusion and seizure

The TSA in its current form is an organization so bogged down by pointless rules and policies that its very employees recognize and laugh at its plain absurdity while simultaneously being unable to do anything about it. These very same policies are also so ineffective that recent tests show that 95% of weapons make it through its checkpoints – suggesting that we remain no safer or perhaps even less safe from the threat of terrorism related to air travel thanks to the TSA’s efforts. But what’s even more apparent is that a generation of Americans are growing up being conditioned to unjustified government intrusion and seizure at every airport, while being told by government agents that their thoughts and concerns regarding these intrusions and seizures are worthless.

As my representative in congress, I hope that you prove this TSA agent wrong by showing me that my thoughts and concerns are indeed worth something. My concerns about the TSA are shared by many of my friends and relatives, although most don’t write their representatives about it as I’m doing now. Please make efforts to reform or disband the TSA or – at the very minimum – rewrite the rules concerning drinkable liquids brought through security so that they use a modicum of common sense. Thank you.