Published: Wednesday, August 22, 2012, 11:16 AM
I came face-to-face with Big Brother the other day, and it was a frightening experience.
He actually presented himself in the deceptive form of a young, attractive female officer, working for the Transportation Security Administration at Detroit Metropolitan Airport.
At first she simply seemed chatty and friendly. She looked at my airline boarding pass and noted that I was coming from Denver. Then she mentioned that I was headed from Detroit to Grand Rapids.
Steve Gunn”That’s a pretty short flight,” she said.
“Talk to my travel agent,” I grumbled.
At that point she asked me what my business would be in Grand Rapids.
“I’m headed home,” I replied.
Then she wanted to know where home was. That’s when the mental alarms went off and I realized I was being interrogated by Big Brother in drag.
I asked her why the federal government needed to know where I was going and what I would be doing. She explained that the questions were part of a new security “pilot program.”
I then told her I am an American citizen, traveling within my own country, and I wasn’t breaking any laws. That’s all the federal government needed to know, and I wasn’t going to share any more.
Not because I had anything to hide. It was because we live in a free country where innocent people are supposedly protected from unwarranted government intrusion and harassment.
At that point the agent yelled out, “We have another refusal.” One of my bags was seized and I was momentarily detained and given a hand-swab, which I believe was to test for residue from bomb-making materials.
I passed the bomb test and was told I could move on, but I hung around a moment and told everyone within listening range what I thought about this terrifying experience.
So, this is what we’ve come to. The federal government now has a need to know where citizens are going and what they are doing before they are allowed to peacefully pass. I’m starting to wonder what separates us from Russia or Cuba.
Of course, I went home, got on the computer and learned more about this “pilot program.” I discovered that it’s been going on for a few years now at selected airports around the nation.
TSA officers, being the brilliant people they are, are given the responsibility of picking out airline passengers “whose facial expressions, body language or other behavior indicate a security risk.” They are then subjected to a “chat down,” where officers interrogate you and decide if you are indeed a terrorist.
Hmmm. So what did I do to make them label me a security risk?
Well, it was 9:30 in the morning, and I was just coming from a three-day music festival in the Colorado mountains, so I probably looked pretty groggy as I stood in the half-hour line to reach the TSA security checkpoint.
Perhaps it was my odd facial expressions. For the past few weeks I’ve been suffering from a condition called “Bell’s palsy,” which includes temporary paralysis of all the muscles on one side of my face. I can’t smile, and the condition makes me look even grumpier than usual.
I suppose the government figures that grumpy looking people with droopy faces are potential terrorists. God help any stroke victims who try to travel. If they suffer from paralysis beyond their face they may be detained and questioned for weeks.
This program is a bizarre and outlandish violation of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which is supposed to protect us from “unreasonable search and seizure” by agents of the government, unless they have probable cause. I doubt any judge would have considered my droopy face as sufficient cause for harassment.
I lived through 9/11 and I understand the need for tight security at airports. I put up with the ritual of taking off my shoes and belt and standing in a machine that shows TSA agents physical details that are really none of their business.
The idea is to keep dangerous materials that could be used in a terrorist attack off commercial airliners. Fair enough. But stopping people because they look sort of funny to security agents, and probing into their personal business, is going too far.
What’s next? Check lanes on city streets, where jackbooted thugs from Washington, D.C., will stop everyone every morning to ask them where they’re going and what they’re up to? And if our answers are not what the government wants to hear, perhaps we’ll be sent home and put under surveillance, to make sure we’re not involved in anything that Big Brother doesn’t approve of.
Our freedom is severely compromised when government is allowed to do this sort of thing. We are supposed to be presumed innocent and able to come and go as we please, as long as we don’t break any laws or give authorities reason to believe we may have.
The “chat down” program has been a failure, by the way, at least according to a recent editorial published in USA Today. TSA officials interviewed about 725,000 travelers at Logan International Airport in Boston over the course of one year, and none of them turned out to be terrorists. A small percentage were arrested on outstanding warrants for other crimes, but that’s not the purpose of the
To make matters worse, some TSA agents have told civil rights attorneys that they were instructed to target minority passengers at airports, to increase the odds of finding criminals and build justification for the program.
There is no justification for this type of unwarranted harassment in America. Even people who look a little different should be allowed to move about as they please, unless they give authorities a specific reason to stop them.
I urge everyone who cares about freedom to call their elected representatives and tell them the TSA “chat down” program goes way too far and should be iced, before any more innocent citizens are subjected to humiliating and unconstitutional interrogations.
Steve Gunn, a former Chronicle staff writer, is the communications director of Education Action Group. Write: Muskegon Chronicle, 379 W. Western, Suite 100, Muskegon, MI 49443.