5 times you should stand up to the TSA

Francisco Canseco took a stand when a TSA agent tried to give him an enhanced pat-down last spring.

Canseco, who happens to also be a Texas congressman, objected to the agent’s forceful frisking, and a few days later, to being singled out for a secondary screening. Police had to be called in that incident.

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A report published by the San Antonio Express-News last week, which retrieved an incident report under the Freedom of Information Act, paints a complex picture of Rep. Canseco’s confrontation: A legislator who had already taken a public stand on the agency’s effectiveness — or lack thereof — and airport agents who may have wanted to show the congressman who’s in charge.

But it also raises a bigger question: When do you say “enough” to the TSA?

After I wrote about the things you shouldn’t say to the TSA, I sustained a little friendly fire from agency critics, who believe you should always give agents a piece of your mind.

I understand where they’re coming from, and I agree with them, in principle; you shouldn’t ever feel like you have to remain silent. (And yes, I was horrified that a majority of those polled said they were afraid to speak up. Come on, people!)

Sure, there are times when you want to skirt the issue. For example, when you’re running late for your flight, you don’t want to get into an argument with an agent about the Fourth Amendment. The luxury of a debate is something you forfeit for sleeping in that morning. Likewise, you probably don’t want to find out how photogenic your screener thinks he is when your flight is already boarding. Keep the camera in your luggage, keep your head down, and be done with the screening.

Here are the times you should take a stand.

When you’re uncomfortable with the screening process. TSA’s screening process has evolved from a common-sense approach to checking passengers a decade ago to the multimedia circus we’re subjected to today. One thing hasn’t changed: The little voice inside of you that says, “That’s it. I’m no longer comfortable with what’s happening.” It’s the moral compass that always points to “right”. No federal agency can take that from you, or reset it, or force you to ignore it.

I may not agree with every position Rep. Canseco has taken, and I wasn’t there when he took a stand against his enhanced pat-down (see video, above). Did he want to create a controversy? Maybe. But I have no doubt that many TSA agents, given the chance to give a critic a little payback, wouldn’t hesitate. I also have no doubt that he was made to feel uncomfortable. He had the right, and the obligation, to say something.

When you’re uncomfortable with how someone you’re traveling with is being screened. If you’re a parent flying with your children or an elderly relative, you have an obligation to monitor a TSA screening. Even though the TSA has special procedures for children and seniors, agents still have a lot of discretion in how they can screen your dependents. It’s still possible for them to cross a line.

It isn’t just that an overzealous pat-down can traumatize the most vulnerable among us, potentially leaving them with lifelong scars. It’s that every time we let them take our children into a private screening area and reach under their belts and stroke their limbs, we are effectively giving them a license to continue violating our basic constitutional rights. You have to speak up.

When you see something you think may be illegal. TSA agents have a well-deserved reputation for stealing from luggage. Screeners are not above the law, their blue uniforms and shiny badges notwithstanding. If you see something, say something.

When you believe you’re being punished. If the screening process lasts too long — say, you’re you’re stuck in a glass enclosure for almost an hour, like this woman — then you have to take a stand. Agents who are questioned may use some of their “discretion” to subject you to anything from a lengthy screening to a long wait in an enclosed area. That’s just wrong, and you need to speak up when it happens.

When the screeners shouldn’t be there. TSA airport screeners who find themselves in a subway, train station or at an NFL game, should be questioned no matter what they do. The infamous VIPR program is a troubling breach of the TSA’s understood mandate, and agents who try to stop and question you have virtually no jurisdiction, legally speaking.

If you see uniformed TSA agents outside the airport, and they’re not off-duty, feel free to assume they’re up to no good. Actually, you can probably make that assumption even if they are off duty. If one of them tries to force you through a magnetometer or rifles through your belongings, tell them you do not consent to a search. They will probably have no choice but to let you walk away.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of times when you should take a stand against a TSA screening procedure. You will have your own list somewhere, maybe not fully articulated, but you’ll know when to say, “stop.”

Don’t be afraid to.

When you do, remember: The agents screening you don’t like confrontations any more than you do and they respond well to politeness. The only fault I can find with Rep. Canseco’s confrontation is that he swatted the agent away, when he could have simply stepped back.

Raising your voice, hitting an agent or threatening one of these federal employees may feel good in the moment, but it is almost totally unproductive when it comes to ending the TSA’s questionable screening practices.

There are more of us than there are of them, and when we politely but firmly refuse to be treated like criminals, we will win.

57 thoughts on “5 times you should stand up to the TSA

  1. I wish I could be as sanguine. As for “and they respond well to politeness,” this just isn’t true. I got metaphorically slapped down for politeness, as have thousands of others. There are a lot of bullies in blue out there, and they don’t respond to anything resembling politeness.

    1. I agree with you. I think the key qualifier is “firm” — polite but firm.

      Yes, there are TSA agents out there who will interpret your politeness as weakness.

      But standing your ground, engaging in the kind of civil disobedience that Gandhi was known for, may be the most productive way to bring this system to its knees.

      I’ve seen the videotaped shouting matches — I don’t know how effective they are.

      1. Of course shouting matches are pointless.

        As for Rep. Canseco, I think his swatting away of his assailant’s hand was a reflex. It’s not like he was looking for a fight. If someone touches you where they’re not supposed to, it’s a reflex to push that person — or thing — away.

        I can only think Canseco didn’t know about or didn’t believe the stories of assault that routinely take place at the airport, just like so many Americans, including those who comment here. Like him, they’ll have to find out the hard way.

        1. The problem is that TSA automatically interprets such reactions as swatting away their hands as resistance and/or interference. Especially if they’re in the middle of touching you inappropriately.

        2. Agree. When I had a brutal TSO ram her thumb up into my vagina, my instinct was to jump backwards and yelp. Her response was to start shouting “This lady won’t let me screen her! I can’t screen this lady!” and call for a supervisor, who promptly threatened me with the famous “DYWTFT” line (do you want to fly today?).

          All because I did what any woman would do when a stranger rams her hand up into her crotch.

          This insanity needs to be stopped, and we’re the only ones who can stop it – by not accepting it.

  2. The fact that the KENS headline even asks if punching a person in
    the privates crosses the line demonstrates the paranoia and lack of reason
    pervasive in America regarding TSA. There is no question that punching someone in the privates is assault no matter whether the assailant is government employee and the victim a Congressman or both are private citizens. Despite the obvious wrongdoing, the screener was not charged or disciplined, which is plainly an injustice.

    It is essential that Americans stand up for the rights before this terrible situation deteriorate further into a Stasi style police state. Many TSA have criminal records and questionable ethics. The recent DHS Office of the Inspector General report showed that over 2,000 TSA and CBP officials were convicted of major crimes ranging from theft, smuggling to rape of travelers. The full story titled “Child Porn, Coke Smuggling: Hundreds of DHS Employees Arrested Last Year” is available at Wired http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2012/08/employees.

    Travelers must be aware that sometimes they are being intimately
    searched by people that might otherwise rob or assault them if not in a public airport and have an obligation to object when mistreated to preserve their rights and those of others.

  3. A question I thought of while re-reading the story about the woman “trapped” in the scan booth for so long. Isn’t this false imprisonment, or illegal detainment, or something similar? How about, if after 10 minutes or so, you were to simply start disassembling anything you could get your hands on inside the booth? Not in a rage, but very calmly and systematically start pulling things off the wall. I’m assuming that there’s things inside these booths that would come off; I’ve never been inside one, having refused to be scanned every time. Obviously, you’d be hit with a destruction of property charge, but wouldn’t the fact of your “false imprisonment” mitigate that? Just asking 🙂

    That being said, folks, you need to stand up to these bullies. They started stopping folks on the side of the road in southwest Florida for a reason. The population down there is older and used to “respecting authority”. “Sure, officer, you can search through my car. I have nothing to hide.” It’s not about whether or not you have anything to hide. It’s about whether they have the right to search. You rights are not going to be taken from you in one fell swoop. You will lose them slowly and incrementally over a period of time. You’ll wake up one morning to the “next” small violation of your rights and finally decide that enough’s enough and find that it’s too late to do anything about it.

    1. MarkieA, exactly. Some of us have been saying this till we’re blue in the face, but those who like to lick the authoritarian boot don’t want to hear it.

      As for the glassed-in gulag, no, there’s nothing on the walls. Can’t say I think small acts of destruction would accomplish anything anyway; on the contrary. And yes, you’re right, it is false imprisonment. The woman in question is Stacey Armato. She’s a lawyer. It’s taken her a full year to amass enough ammo to bring suit. Even she, with all the legal muscle at her disposal, couldn’t do anything to help herself when she was being abused.

      1. False imprisonment. You people get nuttier every year. What about getting pulled over in a traffic stop? Yeah, not that either.

        1. So, you think there’s nothing wrong with being held in a glass enclosure for one hour, against your will, with no proof or even a charge that you did anything wrong? You’ll fit into the New Order nicely.

          1. Paulette, oh, right, we forgot — MarkieA was personally responsible for passage of the Patriot Act. And you, of course, know what he — or any of us — tried to do to stop it. Wow, I love mind readers!

          2. I’m wondering why you didn’t stop the Patriot Act, Paulette? Why did you let Congress pass it? I know that you personally could have stopped it if only you would have gotten up from the couch and done something.

        2. It’s actually really simple: If you are held against your will, it’s false imprisonment.

          What’s truly nutty is people like you, JoshuaTree, who are so willing to allow all of our rights to be trampled just for the sake of getting on an airplane.

          1. It is disgusting and outrageous to “punish” a passenger by keeping her in the glass cage more than a few minutes, but if the TSA has the authority to do it, is not false imprisonment, or at least not actionable false imprisonment.

          2. I feel confident in saying that TSA doesn’t have the authority to hold anybody in such a manner. They can call the police, but that’s the extent of it.

            The problem is we continue to let TSA employees hold far more power than they truly wield, and which results in situations like this.

          3. Good for her but as a lawyer myself, I can tell you that anyone can sue for anything. The question is can they win. Is she the one in the video?

        3. Joshua = TSA Employee paid to disclaim people like us. Probably is a GS-11 making a comfy salary plus COLA. Pulling down, what $65k?

        4. Don’t get the TSA crazies going…. And the Congressman, of course he feels entitled to special treatment. Entitlement….

      2. I was stuck in such a booth for 50 minutes after an ankle surgery at the end of 2007 and being confined to using crutches. I could not sit, they yelled at me for “leaning” on the glass walls. I was screaming at one point, and they told me they were calling the cops.

        The complaint? Didn’t get answered.

        1. You should take a doctor’s letter to the airport and give it to them. Your doctor should have offered this at the very least to alleviate any concerns or problems.

    2. The answer should be, no you can’t search my car. If going to the game, no you can’t search my belongings, because your blue uniform doesn’t give you the right to.

  4. Back when I actually was flying a lot (between 2001 and October 2010) I actually spoke up more times than not. PEOPLE!!! The very worst that ever happened was that a supervisor was called (even the time that I just looked them in the eye, gave them my ticket and turned around). Perhaps it’s colored by the fact that I am a 5’4″, 100 pound ‘disabled’ woman, or perhaps it’s because I took the time to learn the names of the heads of TSA at airports (all the better to drop them): perhaps it’s because I never used those asinine little complaint slips, but emailed those department heads – and DC TSA staffers – with my complaints… all I can tell you is that those alternate methods really get personalized attention. Even after I would state loudly “What: you cannot use your eyes??” to some hapless screener. BTW: the email convention for TSA workers (doesn’t work at the top level) is [email protected]. Last time I wrote to an airport TSA head (O’Hare) I got a call back from a staffer that did NOT appreciate that I sent an email to his boss straight away. LOL his answer (after a 30-minute telephone chat) was not exactly kosher: why don’t you just take your leg off and hop on through. But at least I got their attention.

    1. Sure, I’ll take my leg off and whop you nit-witted idiotic TSA agent with it. Ok maybe not the best response but still less idiotic than that suggestion and it would get the point across and be infinitely more satisfying. I am blessed enough to have both my legs but I was annoyed on your behalf. Everyone deserves respect and to keep their dignity intact and treating people the way you were treated is NOT respectful. I had a friend who recently flew her mother back to her hometown because that is where her mother wanted to die. They made her weak mother with an obviously swollen leg and who is very much in pain stand up and walk through the scanner. My friend has an insulin pump, which she wears on her lower back, and has had no trouble before but this time they patted her down thoroughly. She explained and asked several times to be taken to a private screening area and they refused. She was dealing with enough and going through enough emotional pain without the TSA treating her that way and subsequently bringing back her PTSD which she hasn’t had to deal with in a very long time and certainly did not need to be dealing with at that time. Walloping them with a leg sounds better and better all the time…if only that wasn’t assault and battery…

      1. My response to the T-SA….if you’re going to abuse my rights, do it in public, in FULL VIEW, with plenty of witnesses.

    2. I like the email thing….send the response to your Congressman, provided they’re not hoping to get on the T-SA’s consulting payroll after political office that is.

  5. Some years ago when I was still using a film SLR camera, I asked for my bag of film to be hand checked. The TSAagent tried to persude me to put it through the X-ray machine. My response was that I had had film ruined so please may I heve it hand checked. After a few minutes of holding up the line the supervisor appeared and asked what was happening. I repeated my request, whereupon he said he would check my film. I thanked him and screening continued normally and I was not subjected to any extra screening.
    So I have spoken up and would again under the right circumstances, and it should then at least that firm politeness did work.
    I bought a digital SLR before my next trip because I didn’t want the aggravation again.

    1. Back then I asked to have my film checked by hand and the screener was really nasty and absolutely refused to do it.

      1. Several years ago departing from Paris the security assholes refused to check my film by hand. I have not been back to France since then – to hell with them. I can vacation anywhere.

  6. Christopher, you’re correct in that we need to stand up for our rights. But while you say the woman kept too long in the glass “room” and made to wait (obviously, a tactic to upset her and show “who’s boss”) you don’t say HOW to object. What should she have done? Had she walked away, she would have been arrested, right?
    .So what do you suggest she should have done?

    Technically, they kidnapped her, and I think she should file kidnapping charges. However, this doesn’t help her in the moment.

  7. I had a one-way ticket; TSA pulled me out of line for a more stringent search. They even told me they were searching one-way tickets regularly. I was quiet, and a little tearful as I was returning from my mother’s funeral. Something made me tear up. The agent asked why I appeared to be so upset. I told him I was returning from my mother’s funeral. He asked me how I’d gotten to the funeral, since I had a one-way ticket back. I said, “Does that matter?” He emptied my bag, rubbed a few of the bomb-sniffing alcohol pads around it, and ignored me. He called someone else over to go through my things one at a time. A one-way ticket made me a suspicious character? Apparently so. Today, I generally try to be invisibly quiet when going through TSA check points. Too many of them believe they are very powerful. I guess my fear of being stopped again gives them that power. They don’t make me feel safer at all. I’m preaching to the choir in here, though, and complaints to the government seem to fall on deaf, or equally fearful, ears.

  8. A new film just reviewed in the New Yorker magazine (Aug. 27, page85) entitled “Compliance” is about “something cold and lewd in the human heart” which is our compulsion, or at least our tendency, to bow to any authority, no matter the nature of that authority, its supposed legality or even rationality. The film has caused outrage within audiences, many shouting things like Why don’t they DO something! But that’s very easy to say to a film screen. We are, after all, a conformist society, and submitting to authority is an aspect of that cultural norm.

  9. As much as I would like to say something to TSA when their shenanigans get out of hand, I have a plane to catch and don’t relish being subjected to their abusive, vengeful behavior.

    Same thing on a plane – when something screwed up happens, you can make a fuss and have the air marshals greet you when you land or just move on, lodging the complaint at a later times (And according to Delta FAs, to sit in handicapped seating, you must LOOK handicapped).

    It galls me to NOT take a stand but this is a group of people who live to bully people and do it with (obvious) pleasure. To me, it’s a small victory every time I make it through security and am not subjected to their BS, no matter how much they bait me.

    1. One time a flight attendant told me that I didn’t need a wheelchair. I waved my medical alert bracelet under her nose and said, “this bracelet says I do!”

      Fortunately, my condition has drastically improved and I no longer need a wheelchair. But who made her a medical expert to decide who needs a wheelchair and who doesn’t?

    2. Fortunately, though I fly frequently, I have not had really objectionable experiences. A few annoying ones, but nothing offensive. Overseas the process is so much easier, smoother and quicker – until you want to get on that plane back to the U.S.; then security becomes a major hassle again.

  10. It would be nice if Rep. Canseco would get together with Sen. Paul and try to work together to get rid of the TSA. Agree with all of the comments that say that every little inch we give the federal government they take a mile. Someday all of the folks who believe the TSA is keeping us safe are going to wake up and wonder where their “rights” went. Personally, our sheepishness scares the heck out of me!

    1. I don’t think they will ever wonder where their rights went because they are not aware they ever had them to start with.

    2. President Romney can issue executive orders to the TSA. Let’s not forget that. HE can force them to be more respectful of the citizens…and if not, we’ll vote HIM OUT TOO.

      1. Romney isn’t going to do anything. Obama isn’t going to do anything. No candidate is going to do sh*t. We the people have to stand up and say no, and until more are willing to do that, nothing will change.

        Starve the beast. Stop flying. Millions of people can stop flying. Millions of people aren’t forced to fly for work or for medical procedures. Many more millions than are forced to. Bring the airline to their knees and watch how fast things change.

        But we’re nowhere near that point in this country. Most people don’t want to make a sacrifice, no matter how small, no matter how temporary.

      2. Both parties have too much financial gain tied up in this. TSA and DHS spell BIIIIIG BUCKS for for connected people in both parties.

        There is NO way that Romney is going to upset that apple cart. It’s incredibly naive to think that he will go out on a limb like that just to do the right thing. No politician of either party cuts his own throat like that.

  11. I am usually a very assertive, outspoken woman who does not put up with unfair or unreasonable treatment of myself or others but here is the scenario: You have saved your money and your vacation time for the big trip. You are going with your spouse and and two friends. You have taken leave from work, made arrangements for care of the (children, pets, garden, mail, etcl),and paid for everything in advance (nothing is refundable at this late date). Your three fellow vacationers are waiting. Just how assertive, outraged and outspoken are you likely to be as you go through the security lines? I go through the body wave machine without complaint. (I will not do the xray machine but so far in my travels I have not been asked to do so. I dread the time when it comes.) I keep my mouth shut (being friendly or joking does not help) and essentially do what I am told even when the agent is abrupt and unpleasant. Most of all, I do not express my real and visceral dislike for a degrading process that makes me feel as though I live in a police state. And how do I feel? A bit cowardly but I have a flight to make and a lot invested. I suspect that I am not alone in this respect.

    1. Don’t be too ashamed. You are doing exactly what they expect you to do. If the “normal” human response was to fight back, speak up, and object; then they wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing.

  12. I voted “yes” but the thought frightens me. Isn’t that just lovely? BIG reason why I’m boycotting. Flying has become a horrible experience. I can’t understand why this is allowed to continue. The only conclusion I can come to is that our government LIKES it this way just fine, right? Yes, that’s right, terrorize your own citizens, there ya go!

  13. There is nobody that can do anything about it except Congress, but Congress can’t do anything about anything anymore, so I don’t expect much to change. Still if they got a lot more letters from upset constituents it could put the issue a bit more on their radar.

  14. If these people are TARGETING a sitting Congressman – that shows these people are drunk with power. If they will OVERTLY target this Congressman for his political party, and I have DEALT with abuses by San Antonio TSA (they aren’t the nice and fluffy people the Mayor’s office and the Tourism Office claims them to be). They routinely violate the Constitution and our rights here in the Alamo City. I’ve been personally violated, and left wanting by the lack of response by San Antonio Police Department, just telling me to go about my way. (Little chummy with T-SA, aren’t they?)

  15. I have confronted them — so my husband always goes through first — he knows I will be held up. Confronted them because I wore 2 watches!!! Also because my dress looked like a trench coat — I had my coat in the basket. I really TRY to remain calm when they do the “pat down” etc. but lots of times it is just plain OFFENSIVE!! Once those “puffers” blew up my t-shirt and exposed about an inch of flat stomach. I was told to “cover myself.” And then others go through showing more than I did. Ah, well, must get on that plane eventually.

  16. The “shoes off” thing is a bit dated, don’t you think? And when the underwear bomber got caught I thought for sure we’d all have to show our underwear. You know I would wear a thong (I am rather small) and show all the law allowed. These people make more money than they should. In Europe there is no “shoes off.”

  17. This whole column is a bit weak. This sentence is one example of its weakness “Even though the TSA has special procedures for children and seniors,
    agents still have a lot of discretion in how they can screen your
    dependents. It’s still possible for them to cross a line.”

    You have to be paying attention, and reading widely, to understand how far off the mark the TSA has gotten. I read one story from a woman who said the TSA agent insisted on a physical patdown of her child twice. That woman consented to an abuse of her child. Never should a child be patteddown twice unless there is some very good reason given.

    If you want to see how bad the TSA is, try buying a one way ticket and see if you get a special marking on your boarding pass. I bought a one way out from DC to California and because I was returning from a different city, it was less expensive to buy a one way back on another airline. As a result, I was subjected to max inspection everywhere I went. I got to see what they were doing to other passengers, including taking a baby in diapers from its mother’s arms and patting it down.

  18. My particular peeve is having to remove belts. I told a TSA agent that it was disgusting to have to do that. She told me “I’ll get over it”. I won’t, my sense of decency will not, I hope, ever leave me, and getting undressed while going though security – which removing a belt is – is indecent

  19. I am totally against the TSA antics and likely, all they stand for. They are poorly educated and are probably attracted to this kind of job for a false sense of power. In fact, as I understand it; as an agency, millions have been spent without real results. My blood boils everytime I have to go to the airport and be subjected to the insults that “they” inflict, at will. I have stood up to them and was nearly arrested..why? I said what about my rights as an American citizen and one duly authorized idiot (code for TSA agent) said, “when you enter this line, you have no rights; you do what we tell you.” Really? As long as we, the public and American citizens allow the mounting evidence of TSA criminal activity, we can only blame ourselves.

  20. My autistic son seems to get singled out for more intense screening whenever we fly. Luckily, he likes the attention, and the TSA agents have always allowed me to be with him to get him to follow instructions. If my son was resistant, or the TSA agents were overly aggressive, I would probably have to take action.

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