Mission Creep: This Tennessee Highway Is Now Patrolled by TSA

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Despite billions spent on airport security, federal bureaucrats have escaped the terminal. Is your 4th Amendment safe?

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Most air travelers now endure naked scans or genital pat-downs by gloved agents of the government without surprise or complaint. But before invasive security became normal, there was a backlash. And at its height, Transportation Security Administration boss John Pistole said something revealing. "I see flying as a privilege that is a public safety issue. So the government has a role in providing for the public safety and we need to do everything we can in partnership with the traveling public, to inform them about what their options are," he told reporters. "I clearly believe that passengers have a number of options as they go through screening. But the bottom line is, if someone decides they don't want to have screening, they don't have the right to get on the plane." What perturbed me wasn't his defense of mandatory security screening. It was his assertion that air travel is a special "privilege" the feds grant citizens.

I felt the same uneasy twinge when Janet Napolitano, who heads the Department of Homeland Security, told USA Today that "if people want to travel by other means, they have that right." Because where does that attitude end? Is it a "privilege" to attend the Super Bowl, where TSA agents scan the crowd for suspicious behavior? Or to ride on a Metro system, an Amtrak train, or a boat -- other forms of transportation that Napolitano has mused about targeting? As Mark Browning wrote in 2010, using hyperbole and reduction ad absurdum to mock Napolitano, "The bus system could come next. Come to think of it, so could travel by automobile... Here, we find that not only are the crevices of our bodies searched, but so are the contents of our cars. If you don't like it, don't drive. Nowhere in that living document, the Constitution, are we assured of our right to move without hindrance from point to point by private automobile."

Of course, that would never really happen... would it?
 

In the local news report above, which my colleague James Fallows notes here, a Tennessee TV news broadcast reports that TSA is already operating on highways in the state. The brilliant reasoning? "Where is a terrorist more apt to be found? Not these days on an airplane more likely on the interstate," said Tennessee Department of Safety & Homeland Security Commissioner Bill Gibbons. Perhaps he can be forgiven for this absurd quote. After all, his job is to keep Tennessee safe from terrorists. By definition he's guarding against a remote threat. But it ought to make us all upset that the federal government assessed its counter-terrorism resources and decided that the best use of scarce funds would be random checks on vehicles on Tennessee highways.

Feel safer?

The TSA agents are urging all drivers to "say something" if they see something suspicious, which brings us to another great quote from the piece: "If somebody sees something somewhere, we want them to be responsible citizens," says Paul Armes, TSA Federal Security Director. "Report that and let us work it through our processes to vet the concern they had when they saw something suspicious." Granted, if I were driving (rather than traveling by train) to Chattanooga, and I saw an 18 wheeler with a "Death to America" bumper sticker and fertilizer spilling out the back, I'd call the cops; but if there were any actual terrorists on the highways of Tennessee, wouldn't their explosive filled truck look, from the outside, like any other truck?

The last thing America needs is to let TSA and its absurd, security-theater loving bureaucrats out of the airport. Reports a local newspaper: "Larry Godwin, deputy commissioner of TDSHS, said the checks at the weigh stations were about showing the people of Tennessee the government is serious about transportation safety." But quotes like that in fact show that they aren't serious about transportation safety so much as the appearance of it. I'd consent to beefing up airport security even more if it meant being able to keep TSA agents inside the terminal. The notion of random searches spreading everywhere in American life, whether you're exercising the "privilege" of going to a sporting event or driving down the highway, amounts to an unconstitutional surrender to terrorism in places where we've never even been hit by it.


Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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