TSA Watch: Why underwear protests really embarrass you

I‘ve been covering the TSA for more than a decade, and as you can imagine, I’ve seen the agency do some strange things. I wrote about a few recent incidents last week.

But that’s nothing compared with the behavior of the TSA protesters.

Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes the only way to stand up to outrageous behavior that violates your constitutional rights is to be outrageous. And truth be told, I agree with these protesters more often than not.

It’s just that their tactics are, um, a little odd.

Exhibit A: last week’s demonstration at the Manchester, N.H., airport. The characters in this video (above) who call themselves Kelly Voluntaryist and Derrick J. Freeman (their real names? Who knows!).

It’s not that they’re handing out leaflets to protest the TSA’s scans, pat-downs and other procedures that “strip” us of our rights. It’s not even that they’re doing it in their underwear. No, it’s that they’re here in February.

Have you ever taken a walk in your underwear during a New England winter? (I haven’t, but it must be c-o-l-d.)

Briefs and bikinis have a long tradition, when it comes to TSA protests.

Corinne Theile, a.k.a. Bikini Girl, made headlines in 2010 when she stripped down to a bikini to protest the TSA’s invasive new searches. Last Thanksgiving, she returned to the skies.

Theile says she refuses to use the TSA’s body scanners, which she believes are dangerous. And she’s reluctant to undergo the alternative, which is a pat-down, because they are often performed incorrectly by TSA officers. She prefers to reduce the amount of clothing she wears through a checkpoint — ergo the bikini.

Late last year, when she resumed her scantily-clad demonstration, she had worn her swimsuit on 7 flights over the past 12 months to protest the TSA’s screening methods.

If you’re wondering — does anyone get into trouble for this? — then meet Morris Malakoff, who showed up in his tightly whities for a flight from Seattle last fall.

“It got me a $500 fine plus the cost of an attorney and eating the ticket,” he told me. “I now fly from Vancouver or take train to Portland and fly out.”

How about Aaron Tobey, a University of Cincinnati student who removed his shirt before walking through an airport checkpoint a few years ago? He had an abbreviated version of the Fourth Amendment written on his chest. He was briefly detained and later sued the TSA.

When TSA began installing the full-body scanners and forcing travelers to choose between a pat-down and a scan (ah, Thanksgiving 2010 — who can forget that?) it brought out quite a few underwear protesters, actually.

Jason Rockwood showed up at the security checkpoint at LaGuardia Airport in New York dressed only in undershirt, boxer shorts, and slip-on shoes. Not as impressive as the ladies of late, but he had intended to dress only in plastic, and that would have been something.

“At the end of the day I don’t think it’s a very dignified process to go through the procedures that [the TSA is] using,” Rockwood told a New York FOX affiliate, “and so I’m dressing this way to be undignified on behalf of all the people that are submitting to these rules.”

One blog even suggested that men wear kilts through the screening area. But then, who owns a kilt?

Tammy Banovac had a few issues, too. She was briefly stopped from flying when TSA agents discovered an unspecified problem near her, uh, bottom.

I know what you’re thinking: Has anyone taken all their clothes off to protest the TSA? I haven’t heard of any such action, although it was briefly being contemplated.

Most of the passengers reacting to these protests seem embarrassed. They smile awkwardly and they look away. Many of them, I’m sure, have nightmares about showing up to the airport in their underwear (“Oops, I knew I forgot something!”) so these actions hit a nerve.

But I think they’re really embarrassed that these demonstrations are necessary in the first place. If the TSA wasn’t microwaving and massaging air travelers, then none of this would be necessary. At some level, maybe they feel responsible.

Maybe they should. After all, many of them voted for the Congress that created the TSA 10 years ago, and few of them now are willing to stand up to the agency and its police-state tactics. It’s the passengers who do nothing that should be most upset about the protesters who bare almost everything to show that airport security has gone too far.

That’s certainly how I feel when I see someone standing on their principles in their underwear. I cringe.

I wonder: Is this the only way to get the TSA’s attention? Could the more modestly-dressed passengers who agree with the protests have done anything in the last decade to keep this from happening?

What could I have done?

And then I remember that there was, and there still is, something I can do. We have a presidential election in a few months. And I can take action that’s more effective than any underwear protest: I can vote.

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