Monday, November 22, 2010

TSA, Students, and the Fourth Amendment

Whenever possible, I weave in contemporary issues to exemplify concepts I’m responsible to teach in my 20th century US History course. Recent furor over full-body scans and pat-downs at airports is one issue likely to be decided in light of the Fourth Amendment. When asked if they’d personally gone through airport screening, about 80% of my students indicated they had.“Take out your laptops,” I told them, “and go to ‘Google Images.’ Then type in ‘19 highjackers.’” They did and the familiar lineup of Arab Muslim men showed up. “These men hijacked four planes on September 11th and flew three of them into buildings. They had put small knives to the throats of stewardesses and took over control of the planes. Ever since, small knives - even nail clippers - have been seized from airline passengers.

“Now type in ‘Richard Reid.’” They did and various images of the shoe bomber’s face showed up. “This guy joined al Qaeda and tried to blow up a plane over the Atlantic by lighting a bomb made with plastic explosive hidden in his shoe. Ever since, airline passengers have been forced to remove their shoes for inspection.

“Now type in ‘Mohammed Gulzar & Umar Islam.’ In 2006, these two and six other British/Arab/Muslim terrorists plotted to blow up seven US-bound planes over the Atlantic with liquid explosives hidden in soft-drink bottles. Ever since, airline passengers have been forbidden to carry on containers of liquids with more than 3.4 ounces. “Now type in ‘Christmas panty bomber,’ I instructed. “This guy tried to set off a bomb in his underwear on a flight from London to Detroit. As a result, airline passengers have been subject to pat-downs, and now to full-body scans which produce an X-ray image of passengers revealing all their intimate body parts, as you can see in those images near the ‘panty bomber’s’ picture.

“Turn to page 884 in your textbook,” I told them, “and read along as I recite the Fourth Amendment in our Bill of Rights: ‘The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated; and no warrant shall issue but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.’ What part of this Amendment applies to the full-body scans and pat-downs?” I asked.

“Where it says ‘right to be secure in their persons,” suggested a girl.

“That’s right,” I said, “against ‘unreasonable’ searches. Given how these security procedures have evolved, are they ‘unreasonable’? Who thinks they are?

Only three or four raised their hands in each class.

“Who thinks they’re reasonable?”

All the others raised their hands.

“Why are they reasonable?” I asked.

“Because we want the planes to be safe,” said another girl.

“If you don’t want to let them search you, you don’t have to fly,” suggested a boy.

“So, it sounds like most of you believe what the TSA, or “Transportation Safety Authority” does to search people is reasonable, right?” I asked.

Most of them raised their hands.

“Okay,” I said. “Now consider this case. A guy named John Tyner got tickets from someone who invited him to go on a hunting trip. He went online to check out security procedures at the airport in San Diego where he lives. He didn’t want to go through the full-body scan because of radiation and embarrassment, and the airport web site indicated it didn’t use them. But when he got there, some passengers were randomly picked for full-body scans and he was one. Most of the passengers just had to take off their shoes, etc. and go through the metal detector like most of you have. He said he was willing to do all that, but he was unwilling to have a full-body scan or an ‘enhanced” pat-down.’ When a TSA person tried to pat him down, he said, ‘Don’t touch my junk or I’ll have you arrested.’ ‘Junk’ is a slang word for his private parts - a new one to me.”From their reaction, I got the impression they knew the term already.
“The TSA person then reported Tyner to his supervisor. Tyner decided he didn’t want to go on his trip if he had to go through all that and just wanted to leave the airport. TSA, however, is filing charges against him and he’s subject to a $10,000 fine.”

I waited for all that to sink in and asked: “So, is Tyner’s experience with TSA reasonable?”

“TSA should have just let him go through the metal detector like the rest of the passengers,” said a girl.

“He shouldn’t be charged with anything if he just wanted to go home,” said another girl.

“TSA claims that if he went into the security area, he has to complete the process,” I explained.

“That’s ridiculous,” said a boy.

“Well,” I said. “We’ll have to see how a judge thinks the Fourth Amendment applies here and what he or she thinks is reasonable. That’s how our system works and the US Supreme Court would be the final judge of whether Mr. Tyner’s and other people’s rights are being violated or not.”

"Looking at pictures of the hijackers, what did you notice they had in common?" I asked.

"They all had dark complexions," said a boy.

"Anything else?"

"They all had dark hair," said a girl. "They looked Muslim."

"You mean they looked Arabic," I suggested.


"Jews in Israel are more frequent targets of attack by Radical Muslims, but when I flew there and back three years ago, I didn't have to go through security procedures US airports require," I told them. "Israelis profile terrorists and give passengers who fit the profile extra scrutiny. Should US airports do that too instead of treating all passengers as if they could be terrorists?"

"No," said a girl.

"Why not?" I asked.

"Because if they weren't terrorists, they might feel bad that they were singled out," she said.

"Okay," I said. "In September of last year, an al Qaeda terrorist tried to assassinate a Saudi Arabian prince with a bomb hidden up his rear end and set off by remote control. The prince was only slightly injured and the bomber was blown apart. One report I read indicated that rectum bomb could have blown up the fuselage of a passenger jet causing it to crash. Will all American airline passengers be required to submit to body cavity searches next?"

"Ee-yoo," said the girl.

"At that point, maybe profiling wouldn't sound like a bad idea."


ellen penso said...

You should see the movie "Please Remove Your Shoes" (

Rhonda said...

Yes, El Al is the most secure, safest airline in the world. They have to be. And yet they do not use scanners, enhanced pat downs, nor do their passengers have to take off their shoes. Their security agents engage each passenger in a conversation, and they have been highly trained to "read" their reactions. If the agent sees any signs of fear, or nervousness, then they have to be searched. Why can't we use these techniques in the U. S.? One reason is because all of Israel's security agents are highly trained, highly educated, and multilingual.

Anonymous said...

heathWhat is wrong with profiling? Nothing. If someone is profiled, and passes normal security requirements, then an apology should be offered. Why do we make it so complicated? Adopt El Al's screening.

I have my own personal solution. Don't fly unless absolutely necessary.

Melvin Udall said...

You didn't "weave in contemporary issues to exemplify concepts I’m responsible to teach in my 20th century US History course". You demonstrated your fear and hatred for all dark skinned people. Great restraint, though, in showing a woman's scanned image. I'm sure you really wanted to show a naked man's backside.

Jim said...

@Melvin Udall:

Could you please point out in the article where Tom "demonstrated [his] hatred for all dark skinned people."

Anonymous said...

Hey Melvin, Tom has his faults as we all do, and I don't always agree with him, but please show me anything he has written in the past few years that demonstrates this so called hatred. I have always found him fairly even handed about that. He is just telling the truth. Its not a coincidence that most of the bombers and suspected bombers are dark skinned people. That seems to be the norm for those who come from the part of the world that wants the USA gone.
Find another axe to grind.

Chuck said...

Is Tom suggesting that ONLY muslims are targeted and nobody else? How quick do you think that muslims will find white accomplices to carry bombs thru security for them? (Not to mention the possibility that a white person decides to do it on their own). If it is not only muslims targeted than we are back to square one - how do we decide who else to screen?

Any answerw, Tom?

Tom McLaughlin said...

Given that our TSA security procedures have caught zero terrorists in nine years, all they've done is choreographed a multi-billion-dollar exercise in political correctness. They're even thinking of exempting Muslim women in burkas from screening.

It's absurd not to give extra scrutiny to passengers from Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, Sudan, etc.

Israelis profile using several criteria including a passenger's travel history and country of origin. Mostly, they have highly-trained interviewers ask questions and watch for body language or nervousness in responses. Only those showing either are searched. I wasn't when I passed through there. Evidently, it works well.

Plus, I got an email earlier today with this news:

"The Israelis are developing an airport security device that eliminates the
privacy concerns that come with full-body scanners at the airports.

It's a booth you can step into that will not X-ray you, but will detonate
any explosive device you may have on you. They see this as a win-win for
everyone, with none of the whining about racial profiling. It also would
eliminate the costs of long and expensive trials. Justice would be swift.
Case closed!

You're in the airport terminal and you hear a muffled explosion. Shortly
thereafter an announcement comes over the PA system: "Attention standby
passengers — we now have a seat available on flight number ____. Shalom."

Unknown said...

From this point on, Tom, I'm making your blog required reading for my students!
Sheila (Florida)

Anonymous said...

Gotta love the new Israeli system.

Anonymous said...

What is the big deal about somebody seeing a blurry image of your bodies outline? I don't get it. Does somebody have insecurities about what might be seen?

"The exploder" system sounds great to me as well. People get frisked and searched going to sporting events, concerts, etc, and now people are trying to make a big deal about airports? Get over it. I saw a poll that said 15% of people have concerns about this topic. This is really such a non-issue that the right wing media is force feeding us.

Rhonda said...

Yes, I like that new Israeli system. The big deal is not about someone seeing a blurry naked image of your body, at least it was not to me. The big deal to me, was that AFTER that, I was told that she would have to do a patdown, and did I mind? Well, all kinds of thoughts went through my head at this point. What would they do if I said "Yes, I do mind"? I had a funeral to go to. So I stuttered a bit and said "No, I guess not". Then she began to rub her hands all over my tatas, every inch of them, right there outside of the scanner, with my hands up in the air, in full view of everyone. I think I went into shock, and didn't even think to ask "Why?", I just bowed my head in shame and walked away feeling totally violated. This happened the first week of September of 2010, before I knew that scanners had been put into place in our airport, so I had no emotional nor mental preparation for this as I might have today.

So, what does the 4th amendment say? It says we should be secure against unreasonable searches. This was an unreasonable search. The only thing that I can think of as to why I received an enhanced patdown of only my tatas is the underwire. If that is the ONLY reason I went through that degradation and humiliation, then yes, it was completely unreasonable to me.

Tom McLaughlin said...

Thanks Rhonda. A good post.

The epitome of reasonable would be profiling terrorists. It's not likely though with an Obama Administration unwilling even to use the word Islam and terrorism in the same sentence. A government unwilling to identify our enemy is, however, willing to treat all its citizens as potential terrorists and that is beginning to grate Americans.

This is an administration that consults CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) for recommendations when filling important anti-terrorist positions in its government. Yet CAIR is a proven supporter of HAMAS - a radical Arab/Muslim terrorist group, a proxy of Iran, and a recruiter of Palestinian suicide bombers!

Be interesting to see how this grass-roots, TSA backlash plays out in the run-up to 2012.

Anonymous said...

If you don't think it is reasonable that you might get patted down in an attempt to prevent planes from exploding than don't fly.

This goofy media created story will die out WAY before 2012, and if it doesn't who cares? Let those 15% of people do what they want.

Chuck said...

I have nothing against profiling and I have nothing against the Israel detonator. I also have no problem with getting scanned or frisked.

I am still not clear on what Tom would do if in charge. Tom, can you answer this direcrt question:

How would you handle security with non-muslim looking passengers?

Tom McLaughlin said...

I would adapt Israeli security methods to the larger US situation. Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv is equivalent to an airport in a small city. Israel's 7 million people include 1 million Arab Muslims. They move quite freely through Ben Gurion. It's not their ethnicity. It's their background and where they've traveled, which shows on their passports. They're questioned closely by people trained to interrogate, and this would be the toughest to adapt to US needs given our size.

TSA is federal boondogle aimed at preserving political correctness and expanding government payroll, government unions, government power, and just plain government. It would totally revamp it. I would acknowledge that Radical Islam is our biggest terrorist enemy and I would srutinize closely anyone associated with it, not ordinary Americans.

ayntrandy said...

Educator McLaughlin is doing a fine job of preparing the local youth to submit to authority without question.

McLaughlin didn't point out to these impressionable young folks that these scanners are being sold by Michael Chertoff, who was the head of the Dept. of Fatherland Security under GW Bush.

He also didn't point out that it was bombs on a CARGO plane that caused the increase in security on PASSENGER planes.

It's all because of the scary brown men, and certainly has NOTHING at all to do with the manipulation of fear on the part of wealthy, powerful white men! Bend over kids! It'll keep you safe!

Chuck said...

Ben Gurion airport already has plans to install full body scanners next year. They already pull random people aside for closer searches. Their security is allowed to strip search you if they want to. Their security is well trained to look for suspicious behavior in passengers, which is a very good thing, and seems to be the only advantage their system has to ours. We definitly should train our securty in this manner.

Unknown said...

All US passenger plane should fly with a potbelly pig on board. And all US forces around the world should dip their bullets in pig fat. So if you crash our plane or oppose our forces we will send you to hell.