What TSA Backlash Reveals About America

It highlights issues we have struggled with since Sept. 11

This article is from the archive of our partner .

From saving thousands of body-scan images to suing a man who dared leave the security line, TSA's recent actions have inspired severe backlash over the absurdities of airport security. But the particulars of TSA's behavior aside, what does this backlash reveal about American society, which has spent much of the last decade struggling to adjust to the realities of the post-Sept. 11 world? What does it reveal about our assumptions about security, travel, and even social class?

  • Failure to Balance Security vs. Privacy  The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg writes, "[The TSA and Dept. of Homeland Security] are going to do whatever they believe it will take, and is legal, to keep Americans safe. That is their bureaucratic imperative. But it is the mission of the President, and of the Congress, to supervise and monitor these bureaucracies, to hold them back when their mission comes into conflict with other missions, such as the protection of the privacy of American citizens. ... [TSA administrator John Pistole] has a mission, and a reputation, and his reputation will be ruined if a terrorist blows up a plane. (This is a separate issue, the pressure our juvenile, zero-defect culture places on government bureaucrats to never let anything bad happen ever.) So he will utilize whatever technology, and whatever techniques, he believes will prevent bad things from happening. Who can blame him? But who makes sure that, in pursuit of a worthy goal, he doesn't go too far?"
  • We Have Long Ignored Much Worse Abuses  The American Prospect's Adam Serwer wonders why full-body scanners have produced such an uproar but far more abusive security practices -- expanded surveillance, torture, extraordinary rendition, permanent detention -- have not. "The amount of freedom Americans have handed over to their government in the years since the 9/11 attacks is difficult to convey. ... But most of these measures are either invisible enough to put out of mind or occur outside of what most Americans can imagine happening to them. As long as it's just Muslims being tortured and foreigners being detained indefinitely, the price we pay to feel secure seems all too abstract. The TSA's new passenger screening measures just happen to fall on the political and economic elites who can make their complaints heard. It's not happening to those scary Arabs anymore. It's happening to 'us.'"
  • Exposes Class Divide  Foreign Policy's Dan Drezner points out that 81 percent of Americans support the full-body scanners while only 15 percent oppose. He says that minority, which includes him, likely represent America's "elites" -- people who fly often enough to generate opposition to intrusive practices such as the scanner. "This isn't necessarily a partisan divide -- conservative elites appear to be just as frosted with the TSA as liberals. Body scanners are an issue that only animates the hostility of elites, however. Real America couldn't give a flying fig one way or the other -- except if National Op-out Day gets them mad when they're traveling. But I think it's a better than 50/50 chance that they'll be angrier at the opt-outers than the TSA employees. Maybe the scanners will quickly disappear in the face of elite protests. Or maybe it means that some clever populist will seize on this issue as a way to talk about out-of-touch elites again."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.