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The tyranny of the TSA

Observer Viewpoint | Sunday, April 5, 2009

We live in an Orange Alert world. Though it’s been over seven years since a terrorist attack has taken place on American soil, the “threat level” for aviation security remains at “Orange,” signifying a “high risk of terrorist attack” on the federal government’s absurdly Orwellian, color-coded Homeland Security Advisory System. Aviation security, of course, is serious business. But much of what goes on at airport security checkpoints has less to do with preventing terrorism than with simply presenting the illusion that something is being done to keep passengers safe, a practice which security expert Bruce Schneier calls “security theater.” Everyone’s heard stories of 90-year-old grandmothers being pulled aside to have their sewing kits thoroughly scrutinized by the watchful agents of the Transportation Security Administration. It’s easy to laugh at such incidents, but our current airport security practices are no joke. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the federal government has operated an aviation security regime that simultaneously fails to prevent real threats and infringes upon Americans’ constitutional rights.

The sad truth is that the TSA’s current airport security system is ill-equipped to thwart a determined terrorist. A 2007 review conducted by the Government Accountability Office found that “investigators succeeded in passing through TSA security screening checkpoints undetected with components for several improvised explosive devices … and an improvised incendiary device … concealed in their carry-on luggage and on their persons.” Such failures are to be expected. A government bureaucracy like the TSA has little incentive to develop effective security measures. Everyone, of course, wants to prevent terrorism. But in the short-term, the TSA’s main objective is to look like it’s doing something in order to satisfy the public demand for action. Meanwhile, the agency has no competition and faces few consequences for failure.

Sadly, ineffectiveness isn’t the TSA’s only problem. In its attempts to increase security, the organization has trampled upon Americans’ civil liberties. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution prohibits unreasonable search and seizure and requires the federal government to obtain a warrant before invading a citizen’s privacy. Yet when we enter an airport, we permit government agents to rummage through our possessions, order us to remove our clothing, herd us through metal detectors and pat us down, all without the least indication that we have broken a law. In our quest for security, we have allowed the state to disregard our nation’s Constitution and to violate our most basic freedoms – the very liberties so hated by the terrorists we seek to deter.

A recent incident provides a disturbing example of what happens when we allow the federal government to ignore the basic restraints embodied in the Bill of Rights. Steve Bierfeldt, a political activist affiliated with Congressman Ron Paul’s Campaign for Liberty, was detained at a St. Louis airport and questioned by TSA agents because he was carrying $4,700 in cash. Possessing large sums money, of course, is perfectly legal, but the federal agents who harassed Bierfeldt apparently weren’t concerned with such a minor detail. The unlucky traveler managed to use his cell phone to record most of the interrogation, and the audio is widely available on the Internet. On the tape, TSA agents can be heard asking Bierfeldt an array of intrusive and irrelevant questions. Bierfeldt responded by calmly and civilly asking if he was legally required to share the information. The agents replied with foul and abusive language and threatened to bring him to other federal agencies for further questioning. After all, they said, if he was innocent, why wouldn’t he want to answer their questions? Never mind that Bierfeldt was being harassed by government agents who were violating his Constitutional rights – the law apparently doesn’t apply in airports, where Soviet-style intimidation is the rule.

Incidents such as Bierfeldt’s unlawful detainment expose a government unconcerned with upholding the basic laws and principles upon which our nation was founded. Federal airport security does little more than violate our rights while infringing upon our freedoms. Thankfully, there’s a simple solution to this problem: privatization. There’s no reason that airlines couldn’t handle security themselves by hiring private businesses to screen for threats. Such a system would introduce competition, providing an incentive for security organizations to constantly improve their methods. Furthermore, because a single successful terrorist attack would put a firm out of business, there would be no room for the type of failure repeatedly displayed by the TSA. At the same time, passengers would be free to choose to fly at airports and airlines that used non-intrusive security measures, instead of being forced through the federal government’s invasive, one-size-fits-all system. There’s no good reason for the federal government to be in the business of airport security. It’s time for Congress to defend our constitutional liberties and turn aviation security over to private airlines, which are better equipped protect passengers than an incompetent and tyrannical government agency.

Ben Linskey, a sophomore majoring in political science and philosophy, is co-president of the College Libertarians. He can be contacted at blinskey@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.