In this case the “government agency” in question is the Transportation Security Administration. Faced with a massive public outcry regarding their new policy of molesting and sexually assaulting travelers who refuse to subject themselves to the new full-body scan machines at airports, the TSA is fighting back by aggressively harassing and persecuting those who object to the new rules.
The target is a San Diego man, John Tyner who made a video of his encounter with the TSA at the San Diego airport over the weekend. Tyner objected to the TSA’s plan to fondle his genitals, telling the agent “don’t touch my junk” – which triggered the TSA to react so defensively that they refused to let Tyner board his flight.
The TSA has been facing a growing public backlash over these machines, as stories of people being subjected to this stunning invasion of their privacy – including a 3-year old girl – are spreading like wildfire. The airline industry is worried about a potential hit to their bottom line if people stop flying to avoid these searches, and flight crews are outraged that they too are being subjected to the scans. But it is Tyner’s video that has gone viral and propelled this into a major news story.
So how does the TSA respond? By persecuting Tyner:
The Transportation Security Administration has opened an investigation targeting John Tyner, the Oceanside man who left Lindbergh Field under duress on Saturday morning after refusing to undertake a full body scan….
Michael J. Aguilar, chief of the TSA office in San Diego, called a news conference at the airport Monday afternoon to announce the probe. He said the investigation could lead to prosecution and civil penalties of up to $11,000.
The only reason the TSA is doing this is to make an example of Tyner to the rest of the country – “resist us and you will pay.” It’s designed to stop people from standing up for their rights and to quell the growing public outrage at the new procedures.
There is no legitimate reason for the TSA to do this. It’s an abuse of power and a sign that the TSA has grown out of control, an agency that needs to be reined in rather than empowered to do whatever it wants out of public fear of another September 11-style attack.
The contrast with other countries is significant. When traveling in Europe in 2009 – including in Spain, a country which has faced a much more persistent and immediate terrorist threat than the US – their airport security procedures are much more sensible and effective. No full-body scans, no invasive pat-downs without some reason to suspect one is needed. The TSA’s security polices exist to protect its own power, not to keep the public safe.
While some dismiss this issue, either taking the side of a government that is now blatantly trampling on people’s rights or saying that this doesn’t matter as much as other privacy concerns, it is now clear that the TSA full-body scans and pat-downs are going to be an important moment in the effort to define and protect our rights in a world concerned about security.
For nine years Americans have gone along with abrogations of their rights and invasions of their privacy in the name of security. This has not been isolated, but is part of a broader trend of undermining basic rights and legal procedures in the name of anti-terrorism. Whether it’s waterboarding of terrorist suspects, indefinite detentions at Guantanamo Bay, or government spying on peaceful protestors, the basic philosophy has been that rights are secondary to security. As the TSA agent told Tyner, “you gave up a lot of rights when you bought your ticket.”
Obviously there’s a degree of difference between the horrific abuses at Guantanamo Bay and what happened to Tyner. But the underlying issue is still the same – must we give up our cherished democratic rights in order to be safe? The TSA may have finally gone too far, and may have finally provoked Americans into resisting the erosion of their rights in the name of anti-terrorism.
Stopping the body scans and pat-downs won’t close Guantanamo, end torture, or lead to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for those dire abuses of power and of human rights. But any time you have a public that is suddenly aware of the damage that has been done to privacy rights and legal processes, it’s an opportunity to organize people to defend their rights and their freedoms more broadly, to get them to call into question and hopefully oppose all forms of trampling of rights so that government can act with fewer limits on itself. It’s a long way for many Americans to go from sympathy for Tyner to sympathy for a Guantanamo prisoner, but it is possible, and it’s an opening I’d make use of if I were organizing on the issue.
No wonder the TSA is so scared, no wonder they are fighting back against the public. And that’s why this issue matters.