Ever since I started writing on homeland security issues, I have tried to be fair when it comes to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screening. While I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to poke fun at them from time to time, I have tried to take a deep breath and do some additional fact-checking before passing any type of judgment on some of the screening controversies that have plagued the agency over the past few years. The men and women of TSA have an absolutely thankless job doing what they do. Regardless of the circumstance, they’re truly damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
That brings us to the latest story that has made the rounds of the news cycle about an elderly passenger who was forced to remove an adult diaper to complete the necessary screening procedures at a Florida airport before she could board her flight.
This instance, like some of the other eye-popping and jaw-dropping cases of the past few months and years raises a lot of questions that need to be answered, but I’ll start with a fundamental one first – I’d like to know where this woman, in her obvious feeble condition, ranked on the risk scale that warranted such a search?
Now don’t get me wrong: the hard, cold facts are that terrorists around the world have used young children, pregnant women, mentally handicapped and disabled persons and even elderly people to conduct their operations. The notorious drug cartels are no different in their duplicity in using similar populations for running drugs and guns at various border crossings and other checkpoints. We also know that terrorists have been more than creative in packing explosives in shoes as well as underpants, but somehow this case has tripped every wire of lacking common sense and respect for human decency.
Other questions that should be addressed include:
- Did TSA have intelligence that said: “Be on the watch for a packing granny,” that warranted this type of intensive search?
- Did an explosive or drug sniffing dog pick up a scent of trace amounts of fertilizer, explosives, or drugs?
- Did her preflight behavior broadcast to the screeners: “I’m up to something and you should take another look at me?”
For the life of me I have tried to figure this one out and understand why this woman got this type of screening, and I can’t.
I want to hear the explanation for this case and I want to see if it can be delivered by a TSA leader or spokesperson with a straight face, without any hint of facial discoloration from blushing, or casting their eyes downward in absolute embarrassment at what happened here.
Since I first heard of this story I’ve heard from at least five different people, each of them alarmed at what happened and saying something like, “My God if that were my parent, I don’t know what I would do but I can tell you my mom/dad/family member would probably lose it if they treated her/him like that old woman!”
I can tell you that if that had been an elderly family member of mine getting that type of treatment, I’d probably have been tasered or arrested for having blown my stack at what I can only describe as a humiliating search of someone I cared about.
Again, I’ve long tried to side with and even defend the screeners from the regular pile ons from the media, late night comedians and members of the blogosphere, but in this case I just can’t do it. I know we need our screening techniques to be nimble and flexible, because the threat is still very real and is always dynamic, but in our quest to address those threats and risks we should never lose sight of human dignity and the respect that we should have for one another.
In this country we literally bend over backwards in our politically correct times to be hyper-sensitive to just about everyone, even down to the labels and descriptions we offer of people. But where was the hypersensitivity to this woman as she boarded possibly her last flight to see her family?
While the screeners probably did not know of the terminal condition that this woman was in when they took her to a backroom to screen her, I’m troubled by the fact that one of the last things a 95-year-old, 105-pound woman had to experience in her very rich life was something as demeaning as being essentially strip searched so she could board a plane to say goodbye to her loved ones.
The obligatory TSA explanation to this circumstance says, “We have to treat everyone the same and as a threat, blah, blah, blah. …”
There is no error in making such a statement, but applying it as it was done to this woman is not anchored to any sense of reality or common sense. If we give that up at the airport and in our way of life, bin Laden and his 19 hijackers will have scored a bigger victory than they already achieved, and that’s a victory we cannot allow to happen.