November 16, 2010 3:45PM

Getting TSA to Look in the Mirror

If you travel by plane, you either hate the Transportation Security Administration, or will soon do so. The TSA has unveiled a new security pat down which is about as close to a strip‐​search as you can get while still wearing clothes.

With a metal knee replacement I invariably set off the TSA metal detectors. I can avoid a pat down by using the fancy new imaging machine where it is available. But this machine images everything on the body, and that means everything. The explicit nature of the pictures is reflected in the nick‐​name which I’m told TSA employees have applied to the machine. Let your mind wander, but imagine a crude term about measuring the male genitalia.

The other alternative is to accept the pat down. Until recently TSA employees used a hand‐​held wand to check for metal and did a limited hand check. The new system eschews the wand and replaces it with searching hands climbing up the inside of the thighs — all the way up.

The only saving grace for me is when veterans do the check. When they realize that I have an implant and go through the check weekly and sometimes daily, most of them take a more relaxed approach. But the newer, and often more determined to do everything by the book, employees really mean it when they announce that they are about to check my thigh.

Like never before, the new procedure has set off public protests. And anger could increase at Thanksgiving, when so many more people will be flying. No one wants airplanes to be hijacked, but few people believe that the current system does much to safeguard us. At least, much of what is done today looks to be “Security Theater,” meant to reassure rather than actually do improve security.

One possible alternative would be for airports to take back control of the process.  Reports the Washington Examiner:

[Rep. John] Mica, one of the authors of the original TSA bill, has recently written to the heads of more than 150 airports nationwide suggesting they opt out of TSA screening. “When the TSA was established, it was never envisioned that it would become a huge, unwieldy bureaucracy which was soon to grow to 67,000 employees,” Mica writes. “As TSA has grown larger, more impersonal, and administratively top‐​heavy, I believe it is important that airports across the country consider utilizing the opt‐​out provision provided by law.”

Private security personnel obviously could mimic the TSA’s worst practices. But if there were multiple actors providing security services competition would encourage airports to look for improved techniques which would cost less, waste less time, and create less embarrassment.

The vast majority of the TSA personnel with whom I deal are polite and friendly. Most actually are working, though it’s not clear their activities always benefit the public. But they all seem to lack a sense of irony.

I enjoy wearing my Cato t‐​shirt with the P.J. O’Rourke quote about giving to power to government being like giving car keys and whiskey to a teenage boy. I receive a lot of admiring comments on it–including from TSA employees. Today it happened again, at Washington Dulles. As I was waiting for my regular TSA‐​provided fondling experience down below.

It’s no knock on the individual employees to point out that the TSA as an agency is a perfect example of what P.J. was warning against. Give Barack Obama & Co. this power and we are likely to lose our money, freedom, and dignity.

I’d like to believe we’ve entered a new political era in Washington, but I’ve worked through too many “new eras” to believe that this one is really new. But a popular uprising about TSA de facto strip searches would be a good start.