Commentary

The Erosion of Our Civil Liberties

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By Amy Alkon

Our Founding Fathers were a bunch of obnoxious jerks — and I mean that in the most reverent way. They were fiercely opposed to blind obedience to authority and risked their lives to flip it the bird. Oh, how disappointingly — and dangerously — far we’ve fallen. Our constitutional rights are increasingly being eroded, and so many Americans are just standing around blinking like livestock.

Last March, I took a more civilly disobedient approach — which sometimes comes at a price. In my case, $500,000. That’s what a Transportation Security Administration agent’s lawyer demanded from me in a letter for “defaming” her client by saying she had sexually violated me while searching me, and then for “libeling” her by blogging about it.

On March 31 at the TSA checkpoint in LAX’s terminal 6, I found I had no choice but to get the pat-down. Tears welled in my eyes — for how we’ve allowed the Constitution to be torn up at the airport door and because I was powerless to stop a total stranger from groping my breasts and genitals as a condition of normal, ordinary business travel.

I can hold back the tears and hang tough, but as I was made to “assume the position” on a rubber mat like a criminal, I thought fast. I decided these TSA “officers” violating our Fourth Amendment rights, searching us without reasonable suspicion that we’ve committed a crime, do not deserve our quiet compliance. I let the tears come. In fact, I sobbed my guts out as the agent groped me. And then it happened: She jammed the side of her latex-gloved hand into my genitals. Four times, with only the fabric of my pants as a barrier. I was shocked and utterly unprepared.

Powerless to stop her, but not to vigorously protest what she had done to me, I yelled afterward, “YOU RAPED ME.” I later blogged about it, naming her and urging others to name the agents who grope them (a constitutional violation even when done according to TSA procedure, which the search of me was not). We need to make it as uncomfortable as possible for those who earn a living violating our rights.

Some believe I’m wrong to suggest this — particularly those who believe the TSA is keeping us safer. Unfortunately, it is not. Security expert Bruce Schneier notes during the agency’s multibillion-dollar history, it has yet to thwart a single attempted terrorist attack. He calls the TSA’s efforts “security theater,” observing all the dangerous items it misses. For example, in Dallas last year, a TSA tester sneaked a gun through the body scanner. Not once. Five times! That happened just months after a TSA supervisor said I was “lucky” he wasn’t confiscating my dull little drugstore tweezers. Confiscating my tweezers? Why? Because I might use them to break in to the cockpit and over-pluck the pilot’s eyebrows?

If the TSA’s actual mission were its stated one — “protect(ing) the Nation’s transportation systems” — checkpoints wouldn’t be staffed by low-wage, unskilled workers and they wouldn’t be searching everyone. They certainly wouldn’t be waiting until terrorists get to the airport to root them out. Meaningful measures to thwart terrorist acts require highly trained law enforcement officers using targeted intelligence to identify suspects long before they launch their plots.

The TSA’s main accomplishment seems to be obedience training for the American public — priming us to be docile (and even polite) about giving up our civil liberties. The TSA not only violates our Fourth Amendment rights but also has posted signs effectively eradicating our First Amendment right to speak out about it. One such sign, in Denver International Airport, offers the vague warning that “verbal abuse” of agents will “not be tolerated.” Travelers are left to wonder whether it’s “verbal abuse” to inform the TSA agent probing their testicles that this isn’t making us safer or are they only in trouble if they throw in an obscenity? Not surprisingly, few seem willing to speak out and risk arrest.

I believe I’ve found a less risky, more impactful way to protest, and it’s through sobbing. I’m calling on American women to follow my lead at TSA checkpoints: Opt for the pat-down, and sob your guts out.

Think about the power of it — in airports across America every day, mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters sobbing throughout their government-administered sexual molestation. As the 18th-century economist Adam Smith noted, sympathy for others is a potent human motivator. Because a bureaucracy’s first duty is protecting itself, I believe our best chance of abolishing the TSA’s pointless daily rights grab is evoking widescale sympathy through women’s tears. Helpfully, there’s plausible deniability for a sobbing woman. TSA supervisors can suspect she’s manufacturing her tears, but they can’t prove it.

Some find it an absurd contradiction that I write books on manners, yet I’m encouraging people to sob at these checkpoints. The truth is, good manners don’t always involve going quietly. Sometimes, like when our civil liberties are violated, the most civil thing a person can do is be as loud and uncivil as possible.
Still, I’m a realist. I know most people will not follow my lead. But, maybe, every day, at every TSA checkpoint, a few will bust out in tears. And maybe, through the spectacle, we can claw back some of the rights we’ve so docilely handed over.

We cannot ensure our complete physical safety — not even by throwing away all of our civil liberties. Trading our rights for security (or, in this case, “security”) is exceptionally dangerous. Every time we go all “We The Sheeple …,” every time we allow one more civil liberty to be yanked from us, it’s that much easier to take the next and the next — until we wake up one day wondering how we ended up living in a police state. Better that we do our sobbing now than then.

NOTE: Top First Amendment lawyer Marc J. Randazza called the TSA agent’s case “meritless” on First Amendment grounds (and SLAPP grounds, as well). Other lawyers and legal scholars have concurred.

One Comment

Bob March 12, 2012 at 2:09 pm

I believe that the TSA is simply one example of our eroding liberties foisted on us with the belief they will make us safer. In fact, ervytime a liberty is taken from us we are less safe than before.

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