Good and evil at the TSA — and what to do about it

After a preposterously positive TSA screening experience before my flight from Hilo, Hawaii, to Maui last week, I get it. I know why the agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems has a few fans — and an apologist or two.

The agents greeted my family with warm smiles at the screening area, asked my kids how they liked Hawaii, and then pointed us toward an empty conveyor belt. Hilo has what I like to call a “gotcha” screening setup, similar to the kind found at National Airport in Washington: you step through the magnetometer and then directly into one of those controversial full-body scanners.

If you want to opt out, you either have to make the decision before the screening process begins, or you’ll be microwaved.

The Hilo TSA agents were incredibly helpful and friendly, and they opened a second screening line — the one without the full-body scanner — for the whole family to walk through. They were patient. They even laughed at my son’s jokes.

Absurd as it may sound, the fact that I’m traveling with three young children apparently makes me less of a security risk. TSA doesn’t need me to go through a full-body scanner. But without kids, it’s either the machine or an “enhanced” pat-down.

So when I hear from travelers like Rose Yoakum who tell me about their horrific experiences with TSA screenings, I have some difficulty believing we’re talking about the same agency. Yoakum’s tale is dreadful in every way.

Flying out of Las Vegas a few weeks ago, she got into a disagreement with an agent over her carry-on liquids. Although she was polite, explaining that she had meant to check in the liquids, the screener took a different approach.

“The agent was like an in-your-face drill sergeant,” she says. “He was screaming orders at me continually, trying to humiliate me. It was demeaning.”

Instead of allowing her to go back and check her liquids, the agent “forced” Yoakum to remove the contents of her bag in plain view of the other passengers. Then another agent instructed her to throw all of her cosmetics away before she could pass through security. She says she was reduced to tears.

“There is no reason for this at all,” she told me.

She’s right; there’s no reason any screening should go like that. Ever.

Now just to be clear, it’s unreasonable to expect every TSA screener to take a personal interest in your family and make them feel like they’re waiting in line at the Magic Kingdom.

But drill sergeant? No.

You’re probably thinking I exagerrated when I referred to the TSA’s misdeeds as evil in my headline. But I wasn’t thinking of Yoakum’s trip through boot camp hell. I was thinking of the latest case against a TSA agent accused of raping a child, which is one of the purest forms of evil in the universe (see video, below).

How can an agency be so good … and yet so evil?

Some of you may think it’s naive, even unpatriotic, to be asking a question like that. After all, isn’t there good and bad in any large organization? And isn’t the TSA’s job so important that we shouldn’t second-guess what it does, at the risk of giving comfort to our enemies?

Respectfully, that’s nonsense. We have the right to a consistent screening experience by an organization of professionals, not by pedophiles and rapists. Hyperbole? Hardly. As my colleague at TSA News Blog, Lisa Simeone, noted, these incidents are so common, we could use a template to write them.

Anyone who thinks that questioning authority is unpatriotic, as some of my readers and colleagues have done from time to time, should familiarize themselves with the principles on which our country was founded. The right to speak your mind and to question authority is part of our heritage. To ask “why?” is the most patriotic thing I know to do.

You should try it sometime.

Speaking of America, we are about to elect a president, and whoever wins, one thing is clear: It’s business as usual for the TSA, a sprawling organization that many would argue has done as much harm as good to the people it’s supposed to protect.

It’s time to send a message to the newly elected president: We won’t take any more of the false choices and mission creep the TSA has confronted us with. We want reform, and we want it now.

Maybe the best way to do that is to opt out of the full-body scan en masse, which would force agents to conduct a time-consuming pat-down. Joining National Opt-Out Week is a good start, but personally, I believe every day you travel should be opt-out day.

It’s the only way to restore dignity to airport security and to ensure that the TSA is more good than evil.

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