(Column by Fred Reed)

After hearing account after account from friends and acquaintances of rude and sometimes abusive behavior by federal officials in Immigrations, TSA, and others, I spoke by telephone to a fellow at TSA in Washington. He was agreeable and helpful, which is not a response one always gets in the capital. Anyway, I subsequently wrote him a letter, reproduced below, which addresses matters that in the past have been of interest to readers.

Dear Mr. ,

After our conversation of last week (and I appreciated your taking the time) I thought carefully about the problem of “TSA” – which, as I mentioned, has become a catch-all word for everything people don’t like about governmental intrusion on traveling. It is true that in airports the emigrations officers are much more obnoxious than the genuine TSA personnel.

I discussed the matter with a group of friends who, like me, are roughly in their mid-sixties – that is, who remember the United States as it was years ago. We agreed that we are seeing an anger in the United States, chiefly directed at government, that is new to us. There was widespread anger during the war in Vietnam, but it was directed at the war, not the government in general. Today we have something different.

There is a sense that the government now is not only hostile to the public, which it never was before, but out of control. The degree of intrusiveness has grown from almost none to almost unrestrained – or so people feel.

A few examples:

It is widely assumed by sane and educated people that NSA monitors all email; whether this is true I am not sure, but it is believed. Habeas corpus seems to have gone away. The Fourth Amendment no longer seems to exist, “random” searches on the street being legal. Finances are tracked. You can’t buy a commuter train ticket without a governmental ID, information from which goes into a computer (my experience on MARC).

Police are more militarized and more aggressive. The financial crisis is seen, with ample evidence, as the result of corruption and lack of federal regulation. A million people are said to be on the no-fly list. Metal detectors proliferate. Toothpaste and deodorants are confiscated at airports. The country is seen to be in serious decline while the government spends a trillion a year on the Pentagon and wars of mysterious purpose. Children are forced to take Ritalin. The bureaucracy is unresponsive: It takes a year even to get records from the VA, any dealing with IRS can turn into a years-long nightmare even if it is only a routine matter, and the paperwork is so complex that you can’t do anything without a specialized lawyer. I could go on for pages.

This is the context in which “TSA” (in the sense mentioned above) operates. I do not suggest that much that TSA does is illegal. Anything is legal that Congress says is legal, except in the unlikely event that the Supreme Court disagrees. Rather I question whether much of “security” actually accomplishes what it is supposed to accomplish, and whether the benefits outweigh the harm done.

Consider the inspection of all photos in a passenger’s camera, which recently happened to me. It is grossly intrusive and potentially humiliating. Depending on circumstances, the traveler may have nude pictures of his wife, or pictures of himself engaging in sex with a Thai transvestite. Neither is illegal, and neither is the government’s business.

Do these searches in any sense inhibit the dissemination of child pornography? Yes – for about a week. Once the pedophiles learn of the searches – and people who smuggle extremely illegal photos make a point of being aware of such things – the measure becomes worthless. The malefactor puts the memory card with the porn in his back pocket, and leaves a card of innocent photos in the camera.

Of course “TSA” could go through the traveler’s pockets and do a detailed search of his luggage for a tiny chip secreted in a pair of dirty socks. TSA personnel do not have tight connections. A friend recently showed me a memory chip, four gig I think it was, no larger than a pencil eraser. Will “TSA” begin doing random body-cavity searches? Does minor and ineffective inconvenience to the pedophile offset massive inconvenience and indignity to the innocent?

So much of “security” is so obviously pointless that one wonders why it exists. If you randomly search one in fifty passengers boarding Amtrak at rush hour, you do not detect the terrorist ninety-eight percent of the time. In the case of a suicide bomber, the detection leads to an immediate explosion and, unless you conduct the inspection robotically in a blast-proof room, several dead.

To the public, at any rate to the many people with whom I have discussed the matter, the air of federal fear seems almost demented. I have had an (actual) TSA woman solemnly examine a pair of tweezers to determine whether they were blunt-nosed (acceptable) or pointed (posing a threat of hijacking). Do we really believe that a team of Al Quaeda terrorists are going to leap up brandishing tweezers? Equally absurd is that a woman cannot enter the US consulate in Guadalajara with her lipstick. Yes, I know it could contain a cyanide dart or a hidden vial of Tabun. So could anything.

This, while not solemnly written, makes a variety of points that occur to many, many people.

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How much security is enough? Any amount of intrusion whatever can be justified on grounds of slight or imaginary benefits. Those strip-scanners that famously reduce travelers to near-nudity are loathed by women; have they actually accomplished any desirable end, except for the manufacturer? People in the federal security business tend to believe that surveillance is for the safety of the public, then to believe that more surveillance will produce more safety, and finally to fall into the rationale that “if you are doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear from inspections etc.” Police in general tend naturally to believe this. Always, always, it leads to abuses that render the public fearful of the police. For this reason the Fourth Amendment was propounded.

In my eight years as a police reporter for the Washington Times, the police needed probable cause to conduct a search, this being defined as “an articulable reason to believe that a specific person was committing a specific crime.” (Sometimes they lied when they wanted probable cause, but the requirement nonetheless provided a degree of protection for the public.) Walking through Penn Station in Baltimore does not meet the definition of probable cause, yet the PA system constantly announces that people are subject to random search.

The knowledge that one may be searched at any time is intimidating, and being searched, humiliating. Yes, it is legal. A judge can always be found who will find constitutional almost anything. Yet the ability to say “no” to causeless searches was a thing that distinguished America from the Soviet Union. It no longer does.

Finally, there is the tendency for industry to see federal programs as money spigots. (Having long covered the Pentagon, I know the game well.) A company comes up with a better x-ray scanner at $170 thousand per each, times 2500 or however many airport security gates. That’s money. There are also the contracts for training TSA personnel, for maintenance, and for upgrades. A race ensues to come up with an even better scanner, or nitrate sniffer, of blast-proof trash cans for Metro, which can then be sold to the government.

So it isn’t just the rudeness and bullying of Immigrations people, or the confiscation of toothpaste and shampoo and bottled water. It is the sense that the government, if not quite an enemy perhaps, is not friendly, and is endless trouble. For a large and, I think, growing number of people, the most fervent wish is that the government leave them the hell alone.