The bomb sniffing dogs of the future are a distraction from the agency's body scans and intrusive pat-downs
What's the surest sign that the Transportation Security Administration has an image problem? On its Web site, TSA.gov, one of the featured news items describes the agency's "puppy program." It's the fuzziest, most cuddly homeland security initiative ever undertaken. Staffers have so far helped breed and birth 500 adorable little dogs, who'll eventually be used to detect bombs and other explosives. Did I mention that each puppy is named for a 9/11 victim? Or that the widow of Captain Robert Edward Doland Jr., killed in the attack on the Pentagon, was invited on the "Today Show" a few months back to meet the namesake puppy of her late husband?
Thankfully, Mrs. Doland is a dog lover and seemed honored, rather than creeped out, upon her introduction to the little chocolate lab. Well played, TSA public relations. In one media blitz, you've helped show America the agency's best side, comforted a 9/11 widow, and introduced us to hundreds of agents who'll be permitted to paw at our crotches without provoking ire.
But the behavior of TSA's human employees remains problematic. Hence sign number two that it has an image problem: Rep. Ron Paul wants to abolish the agency, and the criticism he offered in a message to the public is too accurate for comfort. "95-year-old women humiliated, children molested, disabled people abused. Men and women subjected to unwarranted groping and touching of their most private areas, and involuntary radiation exposure," he said. "If the perpetrators were a gang of criminals, their headquarters would be raided by SWAT teams and armed federal agents. Unfortunately in this case, the perpetrators are armed federal agents."
To be fair, it's an unwarranted exaggeration to assert that children are being molested. That's about the best that can be said for the new security reality in many of America's airports. But not all of them. In the months since TSA announced travelers would have to choose between naked body scans or intrusive pat-downs, I've flown out of Long Beach, JFK, Austin, and White Plains. I've yet to see a naked body scanner, and the airports where I've flown didn't insist on giving me an intrusive pat down either. I just had to pass through a metal detector, and run my bags through the X-ray machine, where screeners failed to notice that I had a tube of toothpaste bigger than 3 ounces.
Asking a 95-year-old woman to remove her adult diaper is self-evidently absurd. But it's somehow even worse knowing that had she flown out of Long Beach, she wouldn't have been patted down in the first place. The regulations that required her pointless humiliation in one airport don't apply at another. Hard to escape the conclusion that the whole naked-body-scan-or-pat-down regime isn't actually necessary. Given the choice to fly out of an airport that performs a naked body scan and a thorough pat down on every passenger, or one that operates under the status quo circa 2005, which would you choose? Most Americans would forgo the hassle, because they understand that reinforced cockpit doors and the determination of airline passengers to fight back against hijackers are the most important security innovations to occur since 9/11.
In my estimation, TSA's failure to encourage assertiveness among the traveling public is its biggest failure of omission. Passengers, not screening personnel, stopped the shoe bomber and that guy who lit his underwear on fire. But air travelers are never explicitly told to fight if necessary. Nor are volunteers trained to function as something between a neighborhood watch program and a mile high national guard. We rely on surprisingly costly air marshals when with a little effort, a percentage of the traveling public might be persuaded to undergo training. Certainly they would've done so if asked by the president shortly after the September 11 attacks. Instead we've created a clunky bureaucracy that has mostly succeeded in making a subset of the traveling public feel embarrassed, violated, harassed, or otherwise upset. On the other hand, they've got 500 cute puppies.
Image credit: Reuters