By now, the story of Rebecca Hains's frosted cupcake confiscated by an overly zealous (or possibly just hungry) TSA Security Officer at a Los Vegas airport has gone viral, leading to a satirical song, and the sudden burst in popularity at the bakery of a "traditional style red velvet cake with Madagascar Bourbon vanilla cream cheese butter cream frosting" cupcake in a jar, now re-dubbed the National (Security) Velvet Cupcake (with the packaging redesigned to make it safe for air travel). Possibly the only dangerous thing about this cupcake is what it might do to your cholesterol levels.
The rationale - if one can use that word here without sniggering - behind the confiscation of a cupcake is the Transportation Security Administration's rule enforcing the 3-ounce limit for gels in carry-on luggage, ostensibly to prevent terrorists sneaking explosive aboard an airplane. But once we're finished with shaking our heads in disbelief and having a bit of a laugh... it might be advisable to look at this incident from a slightly more serious angle.
The Transport Security Administration was created as part of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act sponsored by Republican Congressman Don "Bridge to Nowhere" Young, signed into law barely a month after the 9/11 attacks, and transferred out of the US Department of Transportation and into the Department of Homeland Security itself in 2003. The stated mission of the Transport Security Administration is to protect 'the Nation's [sic] transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce.' Yet since its inception, the TSA has been the focus of one idiotic bungle after another, supposedly in the name of fighting terrorism, making freedom of movement for people and commerce far harder than it's ever been - for everyone, including politicians.
Rand Paul is hardly the first US politician to finally start objecting to the TSA's intrusive security searches, although he might be one of the most hypocritical, as he was on his way to Washington DC to speak at an anti-abortion March for Life rally. Don't anyone dare even think about touching his body, but he has no problem with government telling women what they can and cannot do with theirs. Rep Sharon Cissna (D-Alaska) endured far more than what Mr Paul suffered, after refusing an 'enhanced' full-body pat-down last year after the TSA in Seattle decided her mastectomy and gel-filled prosthetic breast insert required further investigation, the second time Ms Cissna was subjected to a pat-down. She took a ferry instead from Prince Rupert, BC to Juneau rather than fly, and had been a champion for the rights of travellers since. "The freedom of travel should never come at the price of basic human dignity and pride," she said.
So far, Congress's only idea of a solution is to pass the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) Business Travel Card bill, allowing security-vetted businessmen, politicians and other such more important people than the general public to use special designated immigration lanes to fast track their entry and exit at airports (currently only designated for flight crews) along with special visa exemptions as well But for the rest of us mere mortals, the examples of TSA affronts to normal human dignity and pride are copious.
How about the Kafkaesque incident of a confiscated knife... taken from the pilot of the airplane, a small butter knife from a set of silverware he'd routinely carried in his flight deck carry-on... issued by the airline itself, the same silverware that accompanies meals on long-haul flights. It even had the airline's logo stamped on it.
Or how the TSA completely missed a fairly hefty four-inch knife locking Swiss Army knife in a passenger's backpack, too busy confiscating his potentially life-threatening unopened packet of Hunts Pudding Snack.
Or Jill Flipovic, travelling from New Jersey to Ireland, who discovered a note in her baggage left by the TSA agent who found a "personal item" - the battery operated kind popular with ladies - which read, "Get your freak on girl."
No weapon is too small to consider potentially lethal, either, as British tourist Judy Powell found out when she tried to bring an 11-inch GI Joe action doll, a gift for her grandson, still in its unopened box through security at LAX. The TSA confiscated Joe's 2 inch plastic gun, and actually asked if there were any toy plastic grenades with the doll. Little George was not impressed, who declared his nana's explanation of events as "silly." Out of the mouths of babes.
And then there's the Dallas hairdresser incensed by TSA security officers digging their fingers into her scalp, searching her Afro for weapons.
But far too many incidents are not quite as amusing. The frantic mother of 17-year old Virginia Gibbs didn't find it very funny to have to drive from Jacksonville to Orlando to pick up her daughter after the girl was held as a security risk so long she missed her flight, all because the TSA took exception to Virginia's leather handbag with an embroidered handgun on it as decoration, a handbag the girl had carried through the airport several times before without incident.
Nor was the 88-year-old great-grandmother of seven amused when two TSA agents demanded to know what the suspicious bulge in her trousers was - and told to drop her jogging pants to show them her colostomy bag . Or the 66-year old diabetic strip searched after the insulin pump on one leg and the glucose monitor on the other set off the metal detector. Or the woman forced to pull down both her slacks and underwear after she asked to forgo the full-body scan out of concern it would interfere with her heart defibrillator. Or the former bladder cancer patient soaked in his own urine when a TSA agent burst his urostomy bag during a pat-down - not once, but twice. Or the 95-year-old woman stricken with leukemia forcibly stripped of her 'suspiciously wet and firm' Depends adult diaper at a Florida airport, leaving her without a spare, or any other underwear, with which to travel.
Not too funny, is it?
There's the couple with a 10-month old baby traveling in winter between two cities notorious for weather delays who brought extra baby food, just in case, only to be told they'd brought too much. The TSA confiscated a jar of potentially lethal prunes, one of hazardous mashed bananas, and a bottle of suspicious baby formula. To bring that much food on board, they would need a doctor's note. Both parents are doctors.
Of course, Monica Emmerson had to do them one better; her 19-month-old toddler's sippy cup was confiscated by the TSA at Ronald Reagan Airport because it contained... water. To prove it was only water, Ms Emmerson offered to drink from the sippy cup herself, and spilled it. TSA security officers demanded she clean up the mess, which she did on hands and knees, and threatened her with arrest, mostly for
'disrespecting" the officers, and held her so long she missed her flight. The kicker? Monica Emmerson is a former law enforcement officer herself with the U.S. Secret Service.
How about 14-year-old Elliot Gosko, who was forced to drink pond water he was carrying for a school science experiment, who unsurprisingly became quite ill afterwards - not to mention the possibility he could contract giardia in the next twenty years as a result, as those parasites are hard to diagnose in the early states.
Or the tired 57-year old Haitian who had just arrived at Kennedy airport and was looking for a cab, mistakenly opening an emergency exit... setting off alarms and sirens, which one assumes a real terrorist would have been keen to avoid. The entire terminal was evacuated for more than two hours while police swept the building with dogs and SWAT teams, stranding inbound planes and delaying departures for several hours. Jules Bouloute was arraigned on charges of first-degree criminal tampering and third degree criminal trespass, punishable by up to seven years in prison. For opening a door.
Those are just the stories that are reported in the news.
I could go on and on and on, and that's sort of the point. Just about anyone who flies in the States ends up being able to tell their own horror story with the TSA, some funny, some very much not so funny. TSA agents have been accused of sexually harassing passengers during invasive screening procedures, including touching the genitals of children and forcing a woman to remove her nipple ring with a pair of pliers. Same-gender pat-downs are no guarantee against sexual molestation, and parents are finding it increasingly distasteful to have to chose between their families being digitally naked, irradiated, or physically groped. While I'm not a big fan of celebrity gossip, I also find it somewhat curious how many 'random' searches end up being on people like former Miss Americas, or the Khardashian sisters, or Donna d'Errico, former Baywatch actress and Playboy pin-up, who when she asked why she, rather than her husband or son, had been selected to go through the full-body scan was told by the male TSA agent at LAX airport, 'because you caught my eye.' She noticed that the agent who pulled her out of line for the scan then smirking and whispering with two other TSA agents. How professional.
The "Terror Watch List" has more than a million names on it, many of them absurdly in error, such as the late Senator Ted Kennedy. Or Daniel Brown, a Marine Staff sergeant, who found himself on the no-fly list when returning to the States from serving in Iraq, still in full uniform. Or Robert Johnson, a former US Army lieutenant colonel who ran as a Democrat against Republican John McHugh. Or US Representative John Lewis (D-Ga), or Ozzie and Harriet actor David Nelson, or Jesselyn Radack, a former ethics advisor for the US DoJ, or even Nelson Mandela, of all people. Or, perhaps most absurdly of all, James Robinson, a commercial airline pilot mistakenly on the no-fly list.
As a result, in the past decade since the creation of the TSA, the public has increasingly become less safe than they were before, terrorists or no terrorists. Cornell University studies have shown that road fatalities have risen as a direct consequence of travelers preferring to drive long and tiring distances rather than risk unreasonable airport security. A 2007 study concluded this draconian airport security is costing the airline industry $1.1 billion a year as people are choosing not to fly if there are any other means available. TSA airport security is directly responsible for the decreasing numbers of tourists to the US, not just those who would come and visit the United States, but those - like myself - who quite deliberately book any necessary lay-overs in any other country than the States. Why fly via LAX, where I was kept standing for hours with fellow transit passengers flying from Heathrow to Auckland, in a sweltering corridor, without water, without seats, without being allowed to use the restroom, while TSA agents fingerprinted and photographed passengers who weren't even disembarking in the United States, when I can fly via Singapore instead, with an airport that caters to lay-over passengers with a swimming pool or a relaxing Chinese massage?
The TSA itself is quite aware the department and its security officers have become not only objects of ridicule, but despised and hated by the general public. A few do understand real security depends on the good will and cooperation of people being screened, and some progress is being made to counteract this 'security theater' of the absurd.
The TSA is now working to replace all 241 offensive millimeter-wave body scanning machines currently in use at 40 US airports that digitally strip search passengers with pornographic precision with stick-figure androgynous representations of a generic human body still capable of detecting guns and knives, etc., by the end of 2012. It also probably doesn't help the reputation of body scanning machines that the German government recently announced they are stopping the use of the machines due to far too many false alarms, as high as 49%, caused by nervous sweaty armpits. The machines are not only intrusive, they're practically useless.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has announced US passengers will soon see future travel that doesn't require removing their shoes. "We are moving towards an intelligence and risk-based approach to how we screen," she said. Great - I can stop wearing flip-flops to the airport in winter, then.
But while that's a good start, it's hardly enough. Given the TSA's incredibly poor record for its handling of searches, its notorious lapses in security, and its complete failure to catch a single terrorist, this will be an uphill, if not impossible battle to win. While I'm not quite so gung-ho about abolishing the TSA outright, perhaps the department should scrap its current rulebook and start over from scratch, hopefully with a bit more common sense and civility applied to airline travel security.
Cross-posted at Mouse Musings