TSA and Nazis: What federal screeners do — and don’t — have in common with their Third Reich counterparts

To call someone to a Nazi is the ultimate insult. So when commenters began comparing the Transportation Security Administration to their Third Reich counterparts on this site and elsewhere, I wondered: Do they have a point?

Is the modern-day TSA in any way similar to Germany security in the 1930s?

My initial response was: absolutely not. It seemed “Nazi” was a cheap shot (and a poorly-chosen one, at that) not unlike “fascist” or the more benign “socialist.”

But then I reviewed what others have been saying on the subject.

True, the Nazi comparison is often nothing more than an easy hook, like in this post from The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. Or Ann Coulter’s awkward Hitler/TSA comparison on Bill O’Reilly’s TV program.

In a commentary on the website New Jersey Newsroom last month, Murray Sabrin, the son of holocaust survivors, spent a little more effort on the analogy:

The introduction of so-called porno scanners at America’s airports and the egregious pat downs of airline travelers have turned every American into a German Jew.

Instead of dehumanizing and demeaning one segment of the population in order to pave the way for the Holocaust, all airline travelers are being treated like German Jews by our government for our own good — to keep us safe from terrorists on airplanes.

But his post failed to make a direct connection between the practices of the federalized screeners and those of Nazi Germany. Instead, it drew with broad brushes, arguing that both governments were enemies of freedom.

Libertarian blogger Becky Akers took a slightly more in-depth look at the similarities between the TSA’s screening tactics and those used by the Third Reich back in 2008, with similar results. Apparently, the only thing the two have in common, in the end, is that the TSA is part of the Department of Homeland Security, which has a similar-sounding name to Germany’s wartime fatherland.

Radio host Alex Jones also attempts to draw the comparison on his blog, but goes a step further, arguing that the TSA is in some respects worse than Nazis.

It took Hitler and the Nazis nearly a decade to impose a murderous police state on the German people. In the wake of the staged burning of the Reichstag in February of 1933, the Nazis suspended the civil liberties of the German people and began a concerted effort to eliminate all opposition to their fascist regime.

It has taken the federal government and its Department of Homeland Security – an agency on the drawing board well before September 11, 2001 – to implement police state tactics in regard to travel that far surpass anything devised by the Nazis.

In researching the similarities between the TSA and Nazis, I came across some who vehemently disagreed that they had anything in common. Here’s Stephanie Green, who works for the Holocaust Museum in Washington and has written on the topic for the Washington Times, on an online forum:

To tell you the truth, I’m not sure what Hitler has to do with airport security. And, if you are trying to compare airport screening to the treatment of targeted groups during the rise of the Third Reich, then I suggest [you] read more than just the first section of the Holocaust Museum in D.C.

Fair enough.

Let’s admit it, everything we think we know about German airport security in the ’30s comes from the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade — specifically this scene:

INT. TERMINAL BUILDING – DAY

A Plainclothes Agent distributes leaflets bearing HENRY’S PICTURE to Nazi Soldiers inside the terminal. Henry leans in a doorway reading a newspaper as Indy enters down the stairs and taps Henry’s shoulder. They begin to walk toward the boarding gates.

HENRY
What did you get?

INDY
I don’t know. The first available flight out of Germany.

HENRY
Good.

Indy and Henry show their papers to the Boarding Guards, then join the line of passengers, which has already begun to move toward a moored Zeppelin.

And who can forget this scene?

If that’s accurate, then today’s TSA — and bear in mind, we’re only comparing airport security here — could accurately be described as more intrusive.

In her 2005 book Seeing Hitler’s Germany: Tourism in the Third Reich, Kristin Semmens notes that while the German government sought to restrict international travel by its own citizens, the limits were mostly bureaucratic in nature. Under the Nazis, overseas travel actually increased.

Travel abroad, while representing only a fraction of German tourism figures overall, actually increased after 1933. The Nazi regime recognized that the desire to travel outside the Reich had not disappeared and that some Germans still possessed the means to undertake it. It therefore made no move to prohibit it completely, although it did try to direct and monitor it in various ways.

It would probably be fair to conclude that TSAs current screening practices are, in most respects, far more thorough that those used by airport security personnel under the Third Reich.

So the TSA as Nazis analogy doesn’t really work. Even the broader suggestion that the TSA and Nazis wanted the same thing — which is to take away our civil liberties — is difficult to support. The Nazis wanted much more than to remove civil liberties. Visit the Holocaust Museum if you have any questions about that.

What is a better comparison? I’m in a unique position to answer that question, having covered the TSA since it was created. Nazis, fascists, Star Wars stormtroopers and villains from a George Orwell or Aldous Huxley novel do not come close to describing the federal screeners and the government standing behind them.

Who, then?

Strange as this may sound, one character comes to mind from the 1960s who fits all the qualities of the TSA to a “t.” He’s well-meaning, bureaucratic, incompetent, misunderstood, and at times, amorous.

His name: Inspector Jacques Clouseau.

(Top photo by phi duex/Flickr Creative Commons)

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