Freethought San Marcos: A column
by LAMAR W. HANKINS
While flying on a plane going west
My luggage lock was supposedly the best
It met all of TSA’s requirements and rules
But still they broke it looking for liquids and tools
[May be sung to the tune of Bob Dylan's Dream (1963), or not]
Last summer, I bought new luggage that came with a Travel Sentry Lock for a trip on JetBlue, traveling from Austin to California to take our grand daughter to Disneyland. The lock on my luggage was missing when I retrieved the bag in Long Beach. Inside was a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Notice of Baggage Inspection, the TSA stamp on the notice so light that it is nearly impossible to read. It appears to provide the date followed by “BW18105,” but I have no idea whether this code has any significance.
My luggage, bought three days before our trip, is a Kirkland Signature 26″ Spinner Bag with TSAOO2 stamped on its TSA-approved lock. The lock had three cylinders, with a key hole for use by TSA. As explained in the instructions that came with the lock, the purpose is to allow access by TSA without damaging the lock. Nevertheless, my lock was missing when my bag arrived in Long Beach. My wife’s identical bag and lock arrived unscathed, but it had not been inspected by TSA.
I am aware that TSA is given the job of inspecting luggage using standards not generally known to the public. That awareness does not lessen the feelings I have had, every time my luggage has been inspected (this makes three times), that my privacy has been violated – my underwear has been rifled; my prescription drugs have been viewed; and my other possessions have been molested. When a lock made to TSA’s specifications goes missing after an inspection, I have feelings that my government has violated my person and possessions. The least TSA could do is replace the lock, though I am sure that would take an act of Congress for an item worth no more than $15.
I am a law-abiding senior citizen. I don’t deserve to have my property violated and destroyed by TSA, though I know that TSA will blame the conveyor belts and take no responsibility for its actions. But the loss of my $15 lock is insignificant when compared to TSA’s other common offenses.
Last year, we frequently read about the new TSA x-ray machines that show body parts. To avoid exposing your body to TSA meant that you didn’t fly or you subjected yourself to genital groping by a TSA employee. Last week, TSA announced that it was discontinuing use of these revealing machines in favor of machines that indicate suspicious areas on a diagram of a human body. I learned first hand, however, on a flight to Oregon last fall, that these machines can’t distinguish fatty tissue from bomb-making material. I’m usually good-humored about my fat, but I don’t like it when government employees think it is funny, which is how a TSA employee reacted to the extra adipose tissue under my arm pit.
But many travelers endure real humiliation: strip searches, breast massages, genital gropes, an accusation that a woman had a penis, exposing a 17-year old girl’s bra by pulling her top down, and other humiliating experiences, at times in front of dozens of onlookers, such as in this report:
“Mother is 89 years old, has terminal cancer, weighs 67 pounds, has a colostomy bag and English paperwork from (the) Japanese Government stating so. She speaks no English. They herded everyone through the new machine. Then they select Mother as well as Mrs. EX for extra pat down. Why? No one knows. They get separated, Mother understands nothing. Mrs. EX is not allowed to translate or assist. They call for a Chinese speaking screener, which of course is totally unhelpful. They touch this 89 year old Great Grandmother everywhere. Imagine how that feels for a Japanese citizen! The same with my wife. My goodness, these two little Japanese ladies are going home to Japan, for crying out loud. Incidentally, now they have no view of their belongings in the tray. After ten minutes of touching, groping and needless questioning, they are on their own to look for their belongings. Mrs. EX had two trays, one had her Rolex wristwatch inside. Now there is only one tray and the watch is missing! No help, no assistance, nothing. On top of it, now they have to rush to board. The two ladies are completely upset, crying.”
In a report dated December, 2010, I found this account of an incident at the Austin airport:
“When a computer malfunction caused the lines at the airport to back up and many missed their flights, Claire Hirschkind, age 56 was one of the first to the security checkpoint. She said that she could not go through the backscatter machine because she wears a pace maker. TSA officials told her that she would have to get a ‘pat down’ and she agreed so long as her breasts were not touched. TSA officers said that they would touch her breasts and when Hirschkind refused to comply she was arrested. She says that the police pushed her to the ground, handcuffed her and then dragged her across the airport ground while she cried.”
In September, 2011, a Santa Monica, CA, woman wrote about her TSA search experience on her blog:
“Nearing the end of this violation, I sobbed even louder as the woman, FOUR TIMES, stuck the side of her gloved hand INTO my vagina, through my pants. Between my labia. She really got up there. Four times. Back right and left, and front right and left. In my vagina. Between my labia. I was shocked — utterly unprepared for how she got the side of her hand up there. It was government-sanctioned sexual assault. . . . Upon leaving, still sobbing, I yelled to the woman, ‘YOU RAPED ME.’ And I took her name to see if I could file sexual assault charges on my return. This woman, and all of those who support this system deserve no less than this sort of unpleasant experience, and from all of us.”
The TSA employee hired a lawyer and threatened to sue the blog writer for $500,000, claiming defamation. It seems that publicly reporting TSA’s abuse leads only to more problems for a citizen. Although an almost endless stream of TSA abuse reports can be found with a web search, few elected officials have publicly voiced their opposition to this abuse.
For all of this abuse and more, I am ashamed of my government. It appears that the terrorists did in fact win by causing our government to resort to totalitarian measures, the least of which involve the destruction of my property. When a government agency engages in sexual assault and emotional abuse at its whim, it engages in an “egregious abuse of power,” as described by a 58-year old woman who endured an invasive body search in Birmingham, Alabama, last November. And TSA takes no responsibility for its actions. It even says so on its Notice of Bag Inspection and on the TSA website. It has become a government agency that behaves no better than King George’s appointees to the colonies 250 years ago.
TSA’s behavior reflects the attitude of a despotic government, which already has access to my emails, my phone records, my phone conversations, and my financial transactions. After writing about this publicly, I could well be placed on some special TSA list that will assure heightened scrutiny and harassment whenever I fly (which, fortunately, is seldom).
This is not the America that was falsely described to me in public school. It is not the land of the free, because we have no recourse for such treatment. It is the land of goons – those hired to terrorize or harm others – who, at their whim, abuse powerless citizens.
© Lamar W. Hankins, Freethought San Marcos
LAMAR W. HANKINS is a former San Marcos city attorney.