The Tea Party rode to victory on a wave of economic suffering and vintage populist rhetoric about big government. Now, we will see if they are serious about libertarianism, or whether it was all just electioneering. A good place to start would be airport security.
I'd like one of our incoming GOP members of congress to propose a John Tyner bill, named after airport security's hero/villain of the moment, to return a modicum of privacy to Americans who travel by air. Although, generally, I'm not sympathetic to complaints about big government, one place where Tea Party libertarians and ACLU liberals might find common ground is in the outrageous expansions of the police state when it comes to naked body scans, pat downs, and the robotic, dehumanizing way in which airport security is handled by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
Air travelers are now being asked (and soon required) to put their hands above their head -- the pose reminds me of the famous photo of the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto -- so that they can have a naked image of themselves beamed to a security agent. Of course, the reason is security. But Israelis don't do this, Europeans doesn't do this -- why are we now being asked to do it?
I'm not going to suggest a government conspiracy here. This isn't nearly so devious... or so conscious. This is a classic case of "zero tolerance" run amok, the same misguided idealism that leads to rapid-fire pharmaceutical disclaimers and "WARNING: HOT!" labels on coffee: the notion that, somehow, with enough legalese and blind procedures, we can be safe. Sincere government officials are entrusted with the impossible task of guaranteeing our safety, and they fulfill that responsibility as best they can -- which is to say, hyperbolically and myopically. TSA isn't charged with balancing security against the $2.6 billion in time we spend waiting in line. They're just told to keep us safe.
So, somehow, we have gotten to the point where detailed photos of our genitalia are taken every time we fly home to visit Grandma for Christmas. Or, alternatively, as John Tyner learned, you can have a stranger run his (or her) hands up to your genitals, to verify that you're not carrying anything that could hijack or destroy an airplane. (Like the toothpaste that TSA folks confiscated from me yesterday, because it was apparently .1 ounce over the limit.)
Here's what a John Tyner Act for Airport Security and Privacy could say:
1. Charge TSA with a new mandate, to balance security and the privacy needs of passengers. Replace zero tolerance with an extremely conservative balancing of costs and benefits. The costs of failure are unacceptable, so we must still be over-cautious. Just not this over-cautious. We should be able to keep our shoes on, for God's sake.
2. Empower TSA employees to use their discretion in applying the level of security to passengers, rather than using the maximum level for everyone. How many wheelchair-bound grandmothers do we have to humiliate before we adopt a more rational standard of scrutiny?
2a. As a footnote to #2, specifically ban racial profiling in setting those standards. As a 39-year-old male who frequently travels alone, I have no problem being put into the heightened security category because of those demographic criteria. At least I'll get through the line faster because the pensioners in front of me don't have to be. I don't really care if the security guards want to see or feel my junk, if it's part of a system that makes sense. What's so infuriating is that we all know this system is absurd.
3. Employ questioning techniques, such as used by El Al security, in conjunction with security scans. As El Al has shown for years (and as one El Al security officer explained to me privately), it takes only about ten seconds to determine if someone may be hiding something. Let the obviously innocent go through the fast lane too.
4. Appoint national ombudsmen (ombudspeople?) to be advocates for passengers. John Tyner's audio recording suggests that he let slip an imprudent remark and was punished for it. Yes, he should've kept his mouth shut. But maybe he would've done so if he'd known there was somewhere he could complain.
5. Strictly ban any use of TSA personnel for non-security purposes. Recently, a TSA guard told me my carry-on was too big, and wouldn't let me through until I checked it. That's not TSA's job - that's an airline issue. (In this case, the airline had already said it was fine anyway.) TSA officers work with the threat of government force behind them; that authority should never be expanded beyond actual security needs. By the way, that should also include drugs and other law enforcement issues. This is about security, not law enforcement generally, and we use different standards of privacy in different cases.
A year ago, I wrote that airport security procedures are:
dehumanizing, infantilizing, annoying, and worse. It may seem like a small thing, but the invasive procedures at every airport terminal keep us that much more afraid. No one likes to be searched, and while Terminal C is certainly not a checkpoint on the West Bank, it's one more incursion on our personal liberty by the state, one more coerced "consent" imposed upon all of us by unelected officials.
These are concerns shared by libertarians and liberals, which is why a John Tyner Bill could be a bipartisan effort in the next congress. Getting government off our backs also includes getting it out of our buttocks.