Commentary

Hassling the Innocent Is TSA’s Specialty

“Rand Paul has got to be on the ‘Top 10 People TSA Would Be Smart to Leave Alone’ list,” National Review’s Jonah Goldberg tweeted when news broke of the senator’s run-in with the Transportation Security Administration at Nashville International Airport last week.

Kentucky’s junior senator missed his flight when he refused a pat-down after a body scanner showed an “anomaly” on his knee.

Someone with a conspiratorial mind-set might suspect a little payback for the grilling Paul gave TSA Administrator John Pistole last summer over the agency’s policy of giving the “freedom fondle” to innocent 6-year-old girls. But that assumes the TSA has enough on the ball to carry out even a minor conspiracy.

What Paul experienced was just the routine, pointless indignity that is the agency’s stock in trade. While the terrorist threat has diminished radically, the Obama administration is busy expanding the agency’s reach onto highways, sporting events and train stations.

Much has been made of the bizarre martial metaphors President Obama employed in his State of the Union last week, where he urged Americans to adopt the spirit of “unit cohesion” animating SEAL Team 6: “All that mattered that day was the mission. No one thought about politics. No one thought about themselves.”

Yes, why can’t America function as a highly trained military unit that obeys Obama’s every command without questioning it?

What made the martial rhetoric even odder was that Obama’s speech began with an admission that the country is, in fact, quite safe: “For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to this country. Most of al Qaeda’s top lieutenants have been defeated.”

The safety we enjoy owes very little to TSA’s competence and a great deal to our adversary’s incompetence. Terrorism expert and Cato Institute senior fellow John Mueller notes “the rather impressive inability of the terrorists [in post-9/11 cases] to create and set off a bomb.”

Indeed, “the only method by which Islamic terrorists have managed to kill anyone at all in the United States since 9/11 has been through the firing of guns — in the Little Rock and Fort Hood cases.”

Even as the threat recedes, Obama’s Department of Homeland Security — of which TSA is a part — is expanding the use of paramilitary checkpoints at home. In Leesburg, Fla., earlier this month, federal agents armed with semiautomatic weapons checked IDs in a training exercise at a local Social Security Administration office.

TSA VIPR teams — for Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response — conducted over 9,300 random searches in 2011, on cruise ships, at NASCAR races, on buses, and at train stations.

The Los Angeles Times described one such search at the Charlotte, N.C, Amtrak station in January, in which “three federal air marshals in bulletproof vests and two officers trained to spot suspicious behavior watched closely as Seiko, a German shepherd, nosed [a fiftysomething lawyer’s] trousers for chemical traces of a bomb.”

“TSA officials say they have no proof that the roving [VIPR] teams have foiled any terrorist plots or thwarted any major threat to public safety,” the L.A. Times noted. Still, TSA wants funding for a dozen more VIPR teams.

Contemplating “mission creep” in Obama’s TSA suggests a different martial metaphor than those employed by our newly militaristic president last Tuesday. In his book “Wartime,” Paul Fussell, a veteran of the Pacific theater in World War II, devotes a whole chapter to “petty harassment” by those in power — which soldiers summed up with a salty term: “chickens—t.”

“Frequent, unnecessary inspections,” “insistence on the letter rather than the spirit of ordinances” — it “can be recognized instantly,” Fussell writes, because it never has anything to do with winning the war.”

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power.