Today's TSA News: Rand Paul Edition

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(See update below) As the Atlantic Wire and others have reported, Sen. Rand Paul ran afoul of the TSA on his way from Nashville back to Washington to speak at the mammoth March for Life gathering today. To me the striking -- and unfortunately recognizable -- aspect of his experience the apparently quick escalation to "Do we have a problem here?" prison-guard tone from a TSA representative when Paul asked what had gone wrong and if he could make a phone call (to explain why he wouldn't be there to give his scheduled speech).

This is one of the great airport-by-airport variations in TSA demeanor, in my experience. In some -- for instance, BWI on our last trip through there -- you sense that you're dealing with human beings trying to apply the rules but not rub in their authority. At some other places, you have officers who look as if they're waiting for a traveler to provoke them by showing "attitude." TSA-Dulles usually seems that way to me, though friends in New York tell me that if I traveled through JFK more, I'd have it at the top of my list.

Two notes for the day. First, here is Rand Paul to ABC, talking about how he was made to miss "probably the biggest speech of my career."

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Now, maybe Paul is putting on an Eddie Haskell-like super-reasonable act after being quite provocative in the screening booth. I don't know. But at face value, as one reader said: "Imagine a world where Rand Paul sounds more sensible than the government." [Yes, yes, I know that many readers will say: 'What do you mean 'imagine'? That's the world as we know it.' etc etc]

Next, here's a note from a reader who, like me, has decided always to opt-out rather than go through the "enhanced" scanners. This came in a few days ago:

Yet another indignation for the TSA opt out, from Portland International (PDX).  I have been opting out of the full body scans whenever I get picked for them for all the usual reasons and go through the mutual humiliation with the TSA agent. 

Today (about 15 minutes ago) the opt-out line was about 4 people deep which is the
most I'd ever seen.  I was early and didn't mind waiting quietly but the line perturbed the TSA agent who's job it is to clear people out of there as quickly as possible.  In an attempt to coerce us to just go through the damn machine he started talking to us about the machine. 

At first I thought he was just making chat, "Do you know what this machine is?" I've been to this airport before and I knew it was millimeter and I said so.  "Do you know how it works?" I responded that it was a full body imager done with high frequency waves.  He said, "you have no idea what you're talking about.  It's just like sonar.   You should read about it because you have no idea what you're talking about.  It's perfectly safe." 

I didn't say anything in response (I saw no upside) other than I choose to opt-out.   For the
record, I am finishing a doctorate in materials engineering of which high frequency measurements are part of my research. This doesn't make me an expert in body imaging technology, but I do feel like I know the basics and intermediates (at least) of the underlying technology. Anyway, in addition to being treated as a bigger threat for opting out I am also now an ignorant ass.

 The main observations I had here were the following:
 1) The TSA is hip to the health concerns about the body scanners.
 2) The TSA also believes this is the main reason everyone is opting out and that this is a totally erroneous reason for opting.
 3) When the TSA gets backed up in unexpected places, weird things start to happen to their routine.  When I was waiting online the agents were sending about 50% of passengers through the body scanner.  When the opt-out line got long, this dropped to about 10%.  I'm not sure that it was on purpose, I think it just seemed crowded and they wanted people to go through.

Listen to the Rand Paul clip again. He makes -- gasp -- some reasonable points about the way TSA practice could evolve.*
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* For instance, from his Daily Caller interview:

TSA procedures, he said, ultimately waste time and resources. "So, if you try to comply, if you take your shoes off, you take your glasses off, you take your wallet out, you take everything out of your pockets and try to comply, it still goes off randomly."

"But then you're made to think that, 'Oh, there's a problem. We have to look at this,'" Paul said. "But, they're wasting time, I think, by doing this. Instead of targeting people who meet a risk profile for terrorism, what they're doing is they're just doing these random things. But, I think it's a waste of time and it's insulting to put people through a body pat down when they have not shown any risk."

Update. A wonderful Tweet:
RandTweet.png


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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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