TSA Watch: What Texas’ standoff with the feds really means

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By Christopher Elliott

By now, anyone with an Internet connection knows that Texas legislators have abandoned their efforts to restrict the TSA from screening air travelers with what some consider an invasive and inappropriate pat-down.

The bill would have made it a misdemeanor to “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly [touch] the anus, sexual organ, buttocks, or breast of the other person, including touching through clothing, or touching the other person in a manner that would be offensive to a reasonable person.”

The Texas TSA standoff

But after the Justice Department threatened to suspend flights to Texas (PDF) if it was passed, state representatives had second thoughts about the idea and shelved their proposed law.

Since then, a lot of observers have weighed in with their opinions on the standoff. Some have raised constitutional questions. Others have used the event to call for the abolishment of the TSA. You can also catch a lively debate on the pat-down problem over at Consumer Traveler.

But the critics miss an important issue. Yes, the Texas bill, and others like it (there’s one planned in Utah, I’ve just learned) do raise issues of states rights, and those questions are probably for a court to answer. But the proposed law — and the reaction by the feds — says a lot more about pat-downs than anyone is willing to admit.

From the DOJ letter to the Texas Speaker of the House:

The effect of this bill, if enacted, would be to interfere directly with the Transportation Security Administration’s (“TSA”) responsibility for civil aviation security … Congress has directed TSA to provide for “the screening of all passengers and property … before boarding,” in order to ensure that no passenger is unlawfully carrying a dangerous weapon, explosive, or other destructive substance.

The disturbing implications of TSA’s stance on pat-downs

Not terribly shocking — until you read the bill. HB 1937 doesn’t interfere with any searches. It simply says the feds can’t touch our private parts without probable cause.

So what the TSA is saying, in other words, is that it needs to touch our private parts in order to screen us at the airport, train station, mall, or prom.

This is far more troubling than any debate about states’ rights. The calls for the TSA to be abolished, which are unfortunately completely unrealistic, are just another amusing sideshow that distract air travelers from the real problem.

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Our own government reserves the right to knowingly and recklessly touch our anuses, sexual organs, buttocks and breasts.

I find that deeply disturbing. While my own experiences at TSA screening areas have been nothing but professional, many readers of this site say they have been touched inappropriately and now refuse to fly. The Texas standoff gives their stories added credibility. The government is essentially saying, “You’re right; we touched you and we’ll do it again when you travel.”

For now, it is still possible to avoid these invasive procedures. You can drive or take a cruise without the possibility of being groped.

But how much longer?

How long until one of TSA’s VIPR teams sets up shop at a highway near you, and we have to empty out of our cars, walk through a magnetometer, and be touched by an agent before we can be on our way?

Anyone who thinks the TSA will eventually be reined in through random, constitutionally-questionable legislation is living in a fantasy world.

As it stands, this government agency is unstoppable.

Why? Because the opposition is fractured and more interested in arguing than acting. I know, because after my satirical interview with Blogger Bob last Sunday, it became clear that a good number of the TSA’s critics don’t just lack a sense of humor — they also have virtually no ability or desire to organize against an increasingly intrusive government. (Here’s how to handle the TSA when you travel.)

And until that changes — until the victims stop trying to shout each other down and start fighting on the same side — I’m afraid the TSA will continue to get away with knowingly and recklessly touching our anuses, sexual organs, buttocks and breasts.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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