"I want to do patdowns on airplane passengers. What would TSA need from me before I have authority to do whatever is required to check people's pants?"
That's how my conversation with TSA's Human Resources department began. I wanted to know how much the Transportation Security Administration vets these low-wage officers before giving them full range -- and federal backing -- to decide exactly how much to touch airplane passengers before the officers are satisfied with their precautions.
TSA doesn't require much at all, it turns out. This government agency-gone-wild performs a background check to weed out applicants who are convicted felons, but TSA does not test at all for applicants' psychological soundness.
These are low-wage government employees granted full authority to touch passengers however they like. There is no indication that TSA agents have selectively abused their authority, but as with all government programs: If there are no checks in place to limit power, authority will be abused. Forget racial profiling; if there no limits to officials' power, what would stop them from claiming the most attractive powers need a more thorough patdown?
Safety is important. Yet as long as TSA does not test to determine whether agents are psychologically sound, and as long as this runaway government agency has full authority over any person who enters an airport, individuals are not safe from TSA's propensity to abuse their power.
Cops are charged with doing what they deem necessary to stop alleged criminals from bad behavior and can face penalties if they violate the privacy of innocent citizens without cause. Meanwhile, TSA officials may do whatever they deem necessary to treat passengers however they want, including fining innocent Americans and ejecting them from airports should they refuse to comply with TSA’s determination to treat them like criminals -- a consequence of merely entering an airport.
When the TSA was authorized to deal with airport security, the government wondered whether federal agents or private security would do a better job. It turns out that a test program revealed that private security keeps passengers safe better than do federal agents.
In any case, such extreme, invasive searches are forbidden even for soldiers in Afghanistan searching citizens there, unprotected by the presumptions granted Americans in the US Constitution. TSA officials are not above the law, and they should not have full discretion to decide when they can violate American’s constitutional rights.
TSA is not above the law. Law-abiding Americans should not be treated as though we were criminals. We should stop this bloated government agency from putting their hands down our pants. But, as long as officials insist on patting us down, shouldn't we at least ask these agents whether they have a history of sexual assault?
Photo credit: cjdavis’ flickr photostream.