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March 10, 2016
If you have travelled by air lately, you assuredly have noticed that airplane travel in the United States has grown increasingly intrusive as security measures strain our personal freedoms and right to privacy. Transportation Security Administration (T.S.A.) officials, security experts, and Congressional leaders argue that the risk of a terrorist attack outweighs individual rights and that these intrusive measures are necessary, despite the overt violation of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unwarranted searches and seizures. As Philip Mudd, a former F.B.I. and C.I.A. senior official told Wolf Blitzer on CNN in 2014, when new body screenings and electronic-device searches were implemented, “We have to find a balance and ensure that we protect against legitimate plots by Al Qaeda.” The American Civil Liberties Union agrees, “The government should enact procedures that pose the least threat to our civil liberties and are also proven to be effective.” TSA’s effectiveness is disputed by key groups and their methods are constitutionally questionable at best.
The first requirement of any security measure is that it not violate our personal boundaries, which partially undressing in public, full body scans, and intimate body pat-downs clearly do. Not only are these measures undignified and embarrassing, they violate an individual’s right not to be publicly exposed and touched without a proper warrant, per the Fourth Amendment.
The second requirement is that the measures be effective, therefore justifying the breach of one’s personal liberty. These unwarranted searches can be justified if a specific situation requires it. Random searches fail to meet that standard. Bag searches are intrusive enough when metal detectors are sufficient, but we have grown accustomed to them. Therein lies the problem: incrementally our individual liberties erode in the name of safety, and we incrementally grow accustom to them. Like robots, people follow instructions to remove their shoes, belts, jackets, sweaters, and unpack their briefcases and toiletry bags. Travelers with prosthetics and surgical implants and children are searched.
Prior to 2001, airports were responsible for security and contracted out security services to private companies. Consequent to the airplane terrorist attacks of 2001, the federal government created the Department of Homeland Security, and within D.H.S. is the T.S.A. Private companies had incentive to protect crew and travelers with minimal intrusion and cost. Government agencies have no incentive for either. Instrusions have surpassed our imaginations and costs continue to rise, while service quality continues to decline. “A small but noticeable decline in air traffic has cost the industry an estimated $1.1 billion,” according to Garrick Blalock, author of a Cornell study, The Impact of Post-9/11 Airport Security Measures on the Demand for Air Travel.
Proponents of these measures argue that safety outweighs the inconveniences. Inconveniences are minimal compared to the risk, but the government remains obligated to protect citizens’ constitutional rights. Proponents also claim that these measures have kept us safe, and they cite instances in which weapons were confiscated, including firearms, pocket knives, cork screws, and souvenir mail openers. These disproportionate measures were formed out of fear rather than reason and were reversed in 2013 to allow for small pocket knives. The T.S.A. can effectively thwart terrorism by studying behavior and interviewing travelers, as other countries do. They also have implemented a PreCheck program, but problems with transparency, processing, and unexplained rejections have created more grievances, in typical bureaucratic inefficiency. Some applicants have filed appeals and found themselves placed on a list of security-risk travelers, without explanation or for minor conflicts at some point in time, such as an argument over ordering a soda that resulted in a passenger being detained by air marshalls and interviewed by T.S.A. agents.
At that point, citizens must ask if legal intimidation over ordering refreshments is within the purvue of a governmental security agency and warranted cause for a civil right violation.