Quit picking on the TSA

Security pat-downs of our unthreatening daughters and grandmothers may seem excessive — but it sure beats another terrorist attack

It looks as if the Transportation Security Administration has overdone it again.

On June 25, TSA agents enforced an "enhanced pat-down" procedure on a wheelchair-bound, 95-year-old leukemia patient. Wow, that seems like an even creepier overreach than the incident back in April, in which 6-year-old Anna Drexel was patted down in New Orleans, and became a YouTube sensation in the process. And it gives a certain credibility to the likes of former Miss USA Susie Castillo, who claims to have been effectively "molested" by TSA personnel at about the same time.

Isn't it enough already? Now, at long last, will the TSA finally grasp the insult and absurdity of imposing its invasive, humiliating procedures on the very young, the very old, and the very sick? 

Let's hope not. 

As a very frequent flyer — and as a parent who has folded and unfolded the damn stroller before and after more x-ray machines than I care to recall — I can think of nothing worse  than enduring the whole airport-security rigamarole. Oh wait, yes, I can think of something worse: Getting blown up. For me, the desire to avoid death completely quells the impulse to kvetch about the inconveniences — and yes, occasional indignities — of post-9/11 traveling life. I am amazed that a growing and increasingly relevant cohort of my fellow passengers do not feel the same. 

It's not just passengers in the heat of the moment who are upset. It's policymakers and commentators, too. Nonagenarian Lena Reppert seems admirably unfazed by her recent ordeal, but columnist Jonah Goldberg feels sufficiently violated to urge his readers to "rage against the TSA machine."  Texas Governor (and possible presidential candidate) Rick Perry personally backed a bill in his state legislature that would have outlawed "intrusive" airport-security pat-downs; the measure died, but its proponents are vowing to resurrect it. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) has been making similar noises at the federal level. In response to all this furor, the TSA has modified its guidelines regarding the screening of children. 

I can think of nothing worse than enduring the whole airport-security rigamarole. Oh wait, yes, I can think of something worse: Getting blown up.

Let's all take a deep breath. First off, the question is not whether to super-screen all passengers as if each represented an equally dire security risk. The question is whether to issue a blanket exemption for certain kinds of passengers, even in the fraction of instances when such passengers (like Castillo) refuse standard scanning procedures, are tapped for a random check, or happen to generate some sort of red flag during the initial screening. 

Second, this is not about profiling. Many of those who blast the TSA's pat-down policies seem to believe that if the TSA had the guts to admit that virtually all airline terrorism from 9/11 onward has been carried out by Muslim males, it would have the good sense to focus on the most likely bad guys, and leave toddlers, midwestern moms, and little old ladies alone. Nonsense. For the sake of this discussion, let's assume that the one and only threat faced by American air travelers is the threat from Islamist suicide-murderers. Let's also allow that, at the point of reaching the airport security apparatus, the majority of potential offenders do fulfill that Muslim-male-on-a-one-way-ticket-from-Yemen kind of profile.

Even then, a few facts remain indisputable. It is indisputable that the ranks of violent Islamist jihadists include people who definitely do not look the part: for example, women, American citizens, and expatriates with long-term, incident-free, seemingly benign tenures in the U.S. It is likewise well established that violent Islamist jihadists, whatever they look like, are by definition prepared to sacrifice anyone to their cause: themselves, people they love, people they hate, people of whom they have no opinion. While it may well be true that the entire population of, say, white-western-mom-violent-Islamist-jihadists would fit into a booth at McDonald's, it is also true that it doesn't take more than that to bring down an airplane. Clearly, then, to formally pre-empt even occasional scrutiny of wheelchairs and strollers and those who occupy them is to put the public one crazy parent, guardian, or caregiver away from catastrophe. Given this, "how dare you check my beloved" should be considered a bizarre reaction. 

Granted, one cannot help but sympathize with Jean Weber, the daughter who had to help the frail Reppert through what must have been an excruciating process. But once a hesitation was raised, what would be the preferred alternative? "There is something we can't identify on your mother's person," the agent might say to Ms. Weber, "but she is obviously not capable of violence and you look like a nice woman, so have a good flight!" What overall policy would emanate from that? "When in doubt, agents are required to follow up, unless it's terribly awkward or a passenger gets super-upset, in which case, just go with your gut."

As it happens, I have very little sympathy for the parents of little Anna Drexel. At the risk of infuriating Anna's many YouTube fans, a standard kiddie check is not a big deal. Just recently, I was passing through an airport with my 5-year-old. The male security attendant looked at Charlotte's boarding pass, looked at her, and shook his head. Chuckling apologetically, he explained that candidates for random additional checks were chosen by computer, and that the computer had chosen her. His female colleague invited me to sit and watch as she felt around Charlotte's sneakers, which are pink and light up when she runs; lightly traced her tiny body up and down; and went through the contents of her little bags. 

"OK, but let's get this straight," I joked, "The Peppa Pig stuff is hers!"

Less than two minutes later, the child was trotting off toward the gate,not a mark of trauma on her. Then again, I was not having a heart attack, and her father was not recording the episode for purposes of enraging America. 

Of course, my kindergartener is not a threat. But should the system entirely dismiss the notion that I could be? Absolutely not. It is common sense for the TSA to adopt practices under which statistically low-risk segments of the population rarely undergo major scrutiny. But it would be lunacy for it to enshrine practices which assure terrorists that those segments are waved through. 

It is not beyond the realm of possibility that a child — or, alas, a person with a colostomy bag, or an advanced-Alzheimer's patient in a wheelchair — could, albeit blamelessly, board a plane while carrying dangerous materials. Moreover, it is an absolute certainty that the minute that such an individual's being able to do so led to a terrorist hit — or even a near-miss — the outcry would be for the scalps of the morons in the TSA who let it happen. 

If any of these allegedly outrageous pat-downs had occurred on October 11, 2001, the general reaction would have been, "What an awful shame that things have come to this, but you can't be too careful." That should be the reaction now, too.

View this article on TheWeek.com Get 4 Free Issues of The Week

Other stories from this topic:

Like on Facebook - Follow on Twitter - Sign-up for Daily Newsletter