October 2, 2005  ·  Lessig

So I’ve been a critic of the TSA in the past. But as I crossed the 275,000 miles flown this year, I realized I now like the TSA lots. I don’t like that we need a TSA; I don’t like many of the rules they enforce. But I have been struck by the change in the manner and character of TSA agents. They have become, with experience or training I don’t know, professional. I’ve seen them deal with things that would have closed airports in the past — and from my recent experience, they deal with them the way a good ER doctor does: with patience, and calm, and lots of humor. I was terrified when the post 9/11 TSA emerged. I was terrified by their character. I am relieved, indeed, heartened, by who the TSA has become.

  • boo

    “I don�t like that we need a TSA”

    We don’t. They haven’t made anything safer, they’ve just irritated all of us and cost us a lot of time and money with their ridiculous and arbitrary nonsense.

    Just because they don’t all strut around like the old Stasi all the time doesn’t mean you should like them.
    Honestly, this post has a bit of a Stockholm/battered wife feel to it.

    By the way, I’m putting my money where my mouth is. I’m on a trip next week that would normally require a transit in a US airport, and have spent about $800 extra to avoid the transit, solely because of the TSA.

  • http://alex.halavais.net/news/ Alex H.

    I am glad you have had good experiences. While they may be in the process of becoming more professional in their attitudes and approaches, I would certainly not go so far as to say that they have reached some level of acceptability.

    Part of this is the “bad apple” thing. If you have a waiter who isn’t very good, you don’t damn all of waiterhood. But because TSA employees are granted such incursive authority (really, if you think about it, much more than a police officer), it only takes a little unprofessional behavior to be soured on the whole lot.

    I suspect your travel has kept you in large, busy airports. In my case, I’ve had little difficulty in such airports (with the exception of LAX, which remains bad). But in smaller airports, the level of professional behavior among the TSA is pretty random, from exceptionally good to exceptionally bad.

    Perhaps this is also shaped by my experience as someone that (people tell me) looks inherently suspicious, and who has a strange last name. But I am not at all sure that what the TSA is doing is either necessary or done as well as it could be. This comes through more clearly in my limited experience with security in European airports, which while sometimes even more intrusive, seems much more professional.

  • http://www.communityguy.com Jake

    I agree with you, the TSA has improved by leaps and bounds. I fly quite a bit too, and as both passengers and TSA staff find the new roles and requirements both seem to be settling in nicely. And with a few exceptions, the lines seem to clip along without seeming like they’re missing much (although the reports seem to say otherwise).

    So say we don’t need the TSA is simply idiotic. Unfortunately, the higher the stakes, the less the honor system works. And personally, whether it is “necessary” or not, I like that they’re there. Maybe it’s stupid, maybe it’s not realistic to think that they are keeping me more safe. But the fact that I know that at least there is some amount of bomb/gun/etc. removal makes me sleep better in my airline seat.

  • http://civildisorder.org Dan

    I’m afraid that we are just now dealing with some of the travel inconveniences that people in other countries have dealt with for years.

    Acceptable? No. Inevitable? Sadly, yes.

  • http://www.zihuatenejo.org Alex

    Dan is right that you are now dealing with what we in Europe have been dealing with for years. However for the most part whilst traveling in Europe the behaviour is more civilized, they try harder not to be intimidating and are far more efficient. Has the TSA become better over the last couple of years? Yes. Does it still have a huge way to go. Undoubtedly so.

  • pm

    I have never been more disturbed than going through routine TSA security checks at LAX. Really really terrifying.

  • http://http:/www.jzip.org/ adamsj

    I’m curious as to which of the three Bay Area airports you use most often. I haven’t flown in a bit, but it seemed to me that SFO gave me fairly intrusive-feeling searches fairly often. I didn’t notice that at OAK or SJC.

  • http://www.cathygellis.com Cathy

    I have concerns with the whole institution, but surprisingly few concerns about the individuals themselves. I’ve had a couple of negative moments travelling (FYI – I travel about 25-35k miles every year) but most were due to to the first line of hired guns (not TSA) hired by either the airports or airlines to check people’s travel documents before they get into the security lines, and whose sense of self-importance led them to feed me bullsh*t lines about how I couldn’t take my backpack through.

    But for the TSAs, I think the sense of purpose has helped instill a greater level of pride in the individuals doing this than the previous private “security guards” that we used to have before (I once saw one leave her post to chase after Danny Glover…) And at the same time, I’ve seen them (the TSA people) be extremely reasonable, yet professional, despite some really dumb traveller behavior (eg, accidentally packing a pocket knife in carry-on luggage. Not that *I’ve* ever done that, mind you… um, yeah…)

    But I fully grant you that I’ve been lucky. And I do still get stressed in anticipation of travelling, that on the next occasion my luck just might run out. So I feel ok about saying nice things about the professionalism I’ve seen, but at the same time it’s really hard to get too excited about a police force…

  • http://br.endernet.org/~akrowne Aaron Krowne

    I just returned yesterday from three weeks of travelling in Europe. Interestingly, the only unpleasant experiences I had were (1) with other Americans abroad and (2) with the TSA upon returning.

    At the end of my trip yesterday and exhausted, I was in Atlanta’s Hartsfield airport. After going through passport control and customs, I thought I was home free (I live in Atlanta). But apparently no; I had to deal with new idiocy: it is now required (by TSA? by Hartsfield?) for all international travellers arriving in the airport to go through an /outbound/ security check—even if they are staying in Atlanta and not connecting anywhere else.

    Putting the obvious stupidity of this aside, it is how the TSA dealt with this final checkpoint that bothered me. They decided as usual to pick at a keychain I carry, which is a 128 MB USB memory “Swiss Army” keychain. Due to past run-ins with the TSA, the blade of the tiny “knife” had been broken off. I tried to point out this fact, and the fact that I wasn’t boarding another plane. They didn’t care; and a pair of them put the keychain aside and just kind of ignored me. That is, until I started yelling that someone “stole” my keychain when I put it through the security checkpoint. This got them to produce a supervisor rather quickly.

    The supervisor examined the item, noted the lack of blade, but amazingly, said I could not take the keychain—take it /home/— because it contained a “scissor” tool. This tool has .5″ “blades” (if that) and can barely cut paper. My options were to lose the keychain (an $80 value), have the USB part removed from the sheath (which would make it useless to me), or, astoundingly, put the keychain in my luggage, /check the luggage in/, go back through security myself, and then pick the luggage up at the baggage claim.

    As non-salient as the final option was to me, it was the best. I was risking losing my luggage of course, which I had intentionally kept as carry-on the entire trip (I’ve had luggage lost in domestic connections before), and of course loathe the security scan ordeal. But I did it. For extra measure, I was forced to take my shoes off the second time through security.

    What went wrong here? Obviously one major annoyance is that one can never figure out what one’s experience will be with the TSA, because the enforcement and application of rules seems to be random. The other problem is rather classic: it is the enforcement of rules for their own good, with no situational leeway granted. In this case, for example, it seems pretty dumb to assume that instead of going home, I would go on a murderous rampage through the airport with a microscopic pair of keychain scissors.

    I plan to react to this latest development by clipping the tips off the scissors, so no argument can be made about their “deadliness”, and continuing as usual. I refuse to let the TSA be responsible for wasting $80 of my money that I spent reasonably and legitimately. I will continue to be hassled, but I take some comfort in knowing the TSA’s time will be wasted too, as it will continue to highlight the problems in this kind of “security agency”.

  • Paul Gowder

    I have to disagree, on grounds of the “no-fly” list and the “selectee” list and the “sensitive security information.” The agency is surrounded by too much of a miasma of secrecy to tolerate. They are now increasingly professional and efficient, yes. But at what cost?

  • http://www.highprogrammer.com/alan/ Alan De Smet

    It’s good that the attitude of font line employees is improving, but the evidence suggests that the agency as a whole is not actually making us any safer. I find security expert Bruce Schneier’s discussions on the TSA compelling.

  • http://priestyism.blogspot.com/ David Copper

    An interesting read… all though TSA checks in some ways are useful and someways annoying… but we need to just accept it because they arnt going away and deal with it.

    Check out my blog for some issues that…annoy me

  • Bryce

    Just thinking about the TSA makes me so angry. It is the symbol of the Bush administration’s terrible toll on our country, and it is the front-line “face” of the vast weakening of America’s national image of itself brought on by Dubya’s success at convincing many that dumber is really better. Whatever the outcome of the “war on terror,” we are nation forever changed by the acquiescence to such policies, and what has been lost to the TSA concept cannot be reclaimed.

    In my more cynical moments I wish the TSA would be more hardline — if you really are a security apparatus of such grave importance I would wish that you not say “Please” whenever you’re violating me or taking my grooming scissors (but not my ball point pen). I am a suspected terrorist when I enter the airport and wish that all social niceties be dropped before, during, and after my encounter with you. Simply, do not lie to me, for that is the worst sin you can commit.

    When I’m not cynical I’m merely saddened that we’re all subject to the whims of the badged feeble-minded in society, and that so many others are happy with that situation. They “don’t mind giving up some of [their] freedoms in order to be free” as one lady outside LAX said right after 9/11. It is disappointing that Larry has come to love TSA and agree with her.

    Ironically, the vast spectacle of airport “security” is perhaps the largest performance of public art the world has ever known. We travellers are simply actors in a great presentation of security theater, performing dutifully for the audience of history. These are dark times indeed.

  • Max Lybbert

    Is anyone else amused by the fact that the far left has become as paranoid as the far right once was (http://www.cdt.org/policy/terrorism/cnss.cti.anal.html)?

    I have significant gripes about the TSA, and about the claim that airport security had to be federalized. I recognize that any set of rules will be inappropriate in some circumstances. And, in fact, because of that simple fact, I’d prefer to have private citizens rather than federal agents running security.

    But claims that the TSA is all Bush’s idea, or that there is absolutely no need for airport security, or that there is no redeeming value to securing airports and airliners isn’t very convincing. For one, the TSA predates Bush.

  • http://commonsrights.blogspot.com/ poptones

    Just watch the new reports about China. In every piece I have seen lately that hypes this “fastest growing capitalist economy in the world” they inevitably talk to some sharkskinned capitalist with a western accent who talks up the ‘safety” of the place…

    Do you want to be safe, or do you want to be free? No, you cannot have both – life doesn’t work that way. You can play in the street, or you can have big brother arrest you for crossing it.

    I prefer to take my chances on freedom. It’s sad how few remain who are willing to take that same “risk.”

  • Rocky&Bullwinkle

    You’re in the minority, to state the obvious.

    Here’s an alternate view.

    http://www.concurringopinions.com/archives/2005/10/airport_screeni.html

  • Jay

    Having been a TSA baggage screener, I’m glad to see that someone finally noticed a few of the professionals. There are others, I’ll admit that freely, but hopefully they’ll be fewer and fewer as time goes by.

    I, and several like me, took pride in doing our job correctly despite the environment provided by passengers and higher-ups. I was only in a semi-public area (and not doing passenger screening), but still heard more derision than most would ever hear in a private sector job. It wasn’t earned by me, but by those who did NOT do their jobs properly and acted as if they were somehow above normal citizens.

    As for the commentor who mentioned that the screeners at SFO seemed the most intrusive, those weren’t TSA screeners oddly enough – they’re the bay area airport with a private screening force.

    The TSA has a LONG way to go – both in correcting past wrongs and in determining its own identity. The revolving door at the top of the TSA hasn’t helped in either case.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003407323593 Takumi

    Maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way, but it seems to me that diessnt falls squarely within the protections afforded by the First Amendment. Though, I doubt very much that any legal actions against her for promoting the violation of civil rights would be allowed to see the light of day.

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