Friday, August 12, 2011

On the Fourth Amendment: The TSA

So, you can probably guess how this blog post will go.

The TSA, for those of you who don't use planes, is the federal enforcement agency responsible for airport security. Supposedly they've also been entrusted with the security of other passenger routes like bus systems and train stations, but their influence is a lot less clear there. The TSA is most known for the security checkpoints and screenings people go through on their way to commercial flights.

As further background, the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right of US citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures. This amendment is what compels most law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant in order to search your person, your belongings and other such things, and even more especially, in order to be able to detain you and your belongings in the interest of the law. The warrant has to be issued by a judge, who must be convinced by the law enforcement agency that there is reasonable cause for a search/seizure.

Unless you're the TSA.

I don't mean to criticize the responsibility of the TSA to keep American flights safe. After Sept 11th, I doubt that anyone is ignorant of the threat to air travel by terrorists, both foreign and homegrown. Like most law enforcement jobs, it is probably a bitter, thankless job where you get treated to no end of irritated people who depend on you to guarantee their safety.

At the same time, I think that the TSA has taken a step too far. Their ability to unrestricted searches of US citizens goes far beyond the rights the Fourth Amendment has granted the government. They basically ignore the need to obtain warrants, to identify reasonable suspicion for frisk searches, and basically any kind of limit on executive power. It's gotten to the point that when the legislature in Texas tried to pass a law limiting the searches on travelers in Texas airports, the TSA threatened to shut down the airports completely. Basically, the TSA now has the ability to search any citizen without a warrant, confiscate their property without intent to return it, or even suspicion of criminal behavior, and then threaten the states of the Union with an air embargo unless they comply.

I imagine that the writers of the Constitution did not intend for any executive body to have that kind of power. They had already endured that kind of thing when England was conducting warrantless searches of their homes in order to find smugglers and rebels. Surely they knew, as we should have known, that granting any law enforcement agency that kind of precedent would lead to abuses.

And it has. There have been many reports of travelers harassed by TSA agents, theft by TSA baggage screeners, and worse. All in the name of security that, by all tests and accounts, the TSA isn't actually able to provide. Check after check of TSA procedures has shown them as ineffective in preventing bombs, guns, or other threats from boarding the plane.

All the while, the searches grow more and more invasive, and the restrictions of the freedoms of our citizens continue to grow worse. First it was removing shoes, then no liquids were allowed. Then we were occasionally required to get an X-ray photo of our body--basically a virtual strip search--or submit to an extremely invasive pat down. For those who think that the level of security we currently have will stop where it currently is, there is now talk of some terrorist groups supposedly trying to implant bombs surgically. How long before the TSA decides an actual X-ray will be needed to determine that nothing is tucked away in our stomach lining that could be a threat?

The saddest part is that the people who've provoked this response, the terrorists who have started this whole thing, are idiots. They're more likely to set their own underwear on fire than bring down a plane these days, and normally the private citizens flying with them are able to stop them short anyway. Yet they've managed to intimidate us into believing that this kind of violation of our personal privacy and our inherent rights is necessary to provide security when we travel.

I don't mean to make the lives of the people working at the TSA more difficult. I understand that most are just people going to work and doing their job, and that the whole thing is done under difficult circumstances. The fact is, though, that it seems like we're forgetting precisely who's in charge here. The TSA works for us, not the other way around. As much as the people who believe the TSA has been granted the authority by Congress to do this kind of thing would like us to forget it, the rights they are abusing are not somehow merely tolerated by the government, or granted to us by our benevolent leaders in Washington. They are inherent rights we enjoy as citizens, and when it comes down to it, neither Congress, nor any other branch of the United States government, has the right to suspend them.

There are threats to our safety, and terrorists have targeted our airlines frequently in their efforts to bring down our liberty. I know that as much as anybody else does. At the same time, there has to be a better way to secure our safety without giving up our liberty, or as Benjamin Franklin said, we will deserve neither. For my part, I would rather have my freedoms threatened and risked by a foreign foe than robbed from me by a tyrant close to home.

At least, that's my ranting opinionated stance. What's yours?

No comments:

Post a Comment