Junk Science

TSA backlash

In November passenger dissatisfaction with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) finally blossomed into a full-blown backlash. Sporadic examples of TSA abuses have filtered into the media since the agency was created in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. But TSA’s November announcement that it would be ramping up the installation of X-ray “backscatter” scanners capable of seeing passengers nude, coupled with more-invasive pat-downs for secondary screening, set off widespread protest.

On November 15, software engineer John Tyner recorded his TSA pat-down at San Diego International Airport, famously telling a TSA agent, “If you touch my junk, I’m gonna have you arrested.” The agency then announced it was opening an investigation of Tyner and that he could face fines up to $11,000 for leaving the security area without permission. Tyner’s video went viral, with “don’t touch my junk” becoming a national catchphrase, and suddenly the nation’s media was focused on TSA humiliation stories. Activists then called  for National Opt-Out Day, a planned protest in which passengers would decline the X-ray machines in favor of the more time-consuming pat-downs on November 24, the busiest travel day of the year.

The mass protest failed to materialize, though that may be in part because the TSA disabled some of the scanners during the rush. In any case, after Thanksgiving the media were leading a backlash against the backlash. (The media critic Jay Rosen found nearly a dozen occasions in late November when print and TV outlets directed the phrase “grow up” at Americans uncomfortable with the new searches.) But for all the lecturing from federal officials and the country’s editorial boards, there wasn’t much discussion about whether the new procedures would actually make flying safer.

By most independent accounts, they won’t. A Government Accountability Office report released last March found that the scanner and pat-downs probably would not have prevented attempted “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from boarding a plane in December 2009. Abdulmutallab’s failed attack is the main reason the new procedures were implemented. 

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