When Rights Get Squeezed

If you want to understand the spontaneous outrage that combusted this week at the introduction of new airport security procedures—an electronic undressing for those who go through the fancy X-ray machines and a groping for those who “opt out”—just look at the pictures of our fellow citizens passing through the scanners. They stand, dishearteningly, with their hands above their heads in the universal pose of defeat and surrender.

A TSA officer at Reagan Airport looks at a scanner image last year.

Yet the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration are, frankly, annoyed at the “traveling public” for making such a fuss.

A senior Homeland Security official (who would not allow his name to be used) told CNN this week that “the mood at DHS and TSA is anger.” The official griped to CNN that the real outrage was how TSA agents were being treated. In San Diego, one such agent “was accosted and verbally abused by a member of the traveling public,” said the official. “The fact that some in the media would hail the traveler as some kind of folk hero is shameful.”

He was talking about John Tyner, the young man from Oceanside, Calif., who surreptitiously recorded his run-in with the TSA and posted it online. Mr. Tyner chose not to subject himself to radiation from the X-ray machine and was taken aside for a “standard pat-down.” The TSA agent explained to him how the “groin check” part of the pat-down would be executed. It was then that Mr. Tyner “accosted” the poor TSA agent by saying the immortal words, “If you touch my junk, I’m gonna have you arrested.” For shame, all of you who cheered. For shame.

Shame on those of you who have bought the “Don’t Touch My Junk” T-shirts that entrepreneurs made available this week. Shame too on the Tea Party types who mocked the inviolable authority of the TSA by replacing the Gadsden Flag’s “Don’t Tread On Me” with Mr. Tyner’s impertinent slogan. And treble shame on the blogger Iowahawk who demeaned not only the TSA but Frank Sinatra by recasting “Come Fly With Me” as “Comply With Me.” (The lyric “Once I get you up there” became “Once I get all up there.”) You should all be aware that the TSA is not amused.

“If you touch my junk…” may have garnered all the attention, but it is not the most important thing on Mr. Tyner’s recording. A TSA supervisor told him that if he was uncomfortable, he could be escorted out “and you don’t have to fly today.” Mr. Tyner asked how “sexual assault can be made a condition of my flying.” After a bit of back and forth, the TSA supervisor played the trump card: “By buying your ticket you gave up a lot of rights.”

Do we really want to make a practice of giving up “a lot of rights” (and without the advice of counsel, at that), especially when the TSA makes it clear it will use its authority to punish those who inconvenience or embarrass it? The agency’s San Diego office chief announced that he is pursuing charges and an $11,000 fine against Mr. Tyner for leaving the airport without allowing his naughty-bits to be inspected. Such blatant payback hardly inspires confidence in the TSA as a steward of our surrendered rights.

But it’s all in keeping with the “love pats” (Sen. Claire McCaskill’s unfortunate euphemism). The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg has flown several times since the new procedures went into effect Nov. 1. He has refused the X-ray machine every time and found that the TSA agents inspecting his “crotchal area” (as one of them said in a newly coined bit of bureaucratese) admit the procedure is meant to be so unpleasant that fliers will choose the naked-picture machine instead.

I’m gratified that enough Americans are still jealous guardians of their rights to have made this an uncomfortable week for the TSA. And I admire the impulse behind making Wednesday—one of the heaviest travel days of the year—”Opt-Out Day.” The idea is for everyone to gum up the works by refusing the X-ray. If the TSA has to give its lengthy semimolestations to everyone, the thinking goes, they won’t be able to do it to anyone. Alas, security gridlock isn’t likely to discomfit the TSA much. It is Thanksgiving travelers who will bear the brunt of the nightmare—hardly the best way to build popular support for a protest movement.

Instead, perhaps we should make 2011 “Opt-Out of Flying” year. Since buying a ticket means giving up “a lot of rights,” the best way to protect those rights is not to fly unless you absolutely have to. It will help if you let the airlines know why they haven’t had the pleasure of your company.

The old saw is that a conservative is a liberal who got mugged. Tom Wolfe riffed that “a liberal is a conservative who has been arrested.” We might add one more variation: A libertarian is anyone whose wife and children have had their groins groped by the TSA.

Eric Felten, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704104104575622651744906116.html