Here's a question everyone should be asking after last week's stunning verdict against Andrea Abbott, the Nashville mother who tried to stop TSA agents from patting down her teenage daughter: Where do travelers turn when they have a legitimate grievance against the agency charged with protecting America's transportation systems?
Abbott and her daughter refused to submit to a full-body scan but eventually consented to have her frisked. Although their July 2011 confrontation was captured on camera (see video, below), and she appears to be quite civil, she was nonetheless charged with disorderly conduct.
Even more surprising was the decision reached by a jury of her peers. After four hours of deliberation, it found her guilty, and she now faces 30 days in jail and a $50 fine.
It's difficult to find a court in the land that is willing to stand up to the TSA, even on something as small as allowing the public to comment on regulatory rulemaking. Back in September, a D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the Electronic Privacy Information Center's petition to enforce the court's own order on requiring public comments about the full-body scanners. To some, it looked as if the court told the TSA it had to follow the law and then said, "Oh, never mind."
It shouldn't come as a shock that passengers feel powerless against an enormous $8 billion federal agency that seems to have been given carte blanche to search air travelers. Passengers are careful not to say or do anything that might offend an airport screener, lest they end up being arrested and convicted of disorderly conduct.
Think about the last time you were screened by the TSA. Did you feel a little apprehensive? Were you afraid to say anything or do anything that might get you into trouble? Did you just keep your head down, obediently stacking your liquids, gels, laptop, and shoes on the conveyor belt and then walk through the scanner?
We should not have to feel that way.
So what's a concerned citizen to do? Ask your elected representative to step in? Not a bad idea, but I've seen any number of laws proposed since the TSA's infamous decision to either force air travelers through an untested scanner or offer an "enhanced" prison-style pat-down. From the Texas legislature to the halls of the U.S. Congress, each one of them failed, and future efforts by our representatives will probably be just as half-hearted -- and unsuccessful.
Truth is, no one is willing to challenge the TSA. No judge in this land, no jury, no elected representative, has what it takes to put an end to what many believe is a de facto police state.
There's only one person left: you.
Abbott's conviction will only galvanize the National Opt-Out Week movement, which is urging every American to opt-out of the full-body scanners Nov. 19 to 26.
After last week's column, in which I suggested that it was time to stand up to the TSA, some readers thought I was throwing my support behind Opt-Out Week.
That's an interesting conclusion. As a matter of fact, I do support civil disobedience as a way to bring about change, particularly when nothing else works.
Opt-Out Week is a good start, and it's certainly better than an opt-out day. I hope a week is enough. But for me, every day is opt-out day. I think it's necessary to protest the TSA's questionable screening methods for more than a week.
I'm afraid we may need a more organized movement, with a pledge we can sign, vowing to opt out of the machines every time. In order to truly reform the TSA, we need a million people who refuse to go through the scanners every day. That may be the only way they'll get the message.
I may be wrong about that. And for the sake of people like Andrea Abbott, who took a principled stand against a government she thought had stepped across the line, I hope I am.
Update: An earlier version of this story didn't have comments enabled and an incorrect poll. No, it wasn't a conspiracy. I stayed up until 1:30 a.m. dodging a tsunami warning with my family in Hawaii and just hit the wrong button.
Follow Christopher Elliott on Twitter: www.twitter.com/elliottdotorg