Next time you fly, take a minute to look around at the airport screening area. You'll see all kinds of interesting passengers, from the "get-alongs" to the dissidents to the folks who think the rules don't apply to them.
Just last week at the crowded Orlando airport, I had a front-row ticket to a confrontation between a young woman and a TSA screener.
Young woman: "I don't want to be X-rayed."
Screener: "We don't use X-rays."
Young woman: "I don't want to be scanned, either."
Screener: "Then you'll get a pat-down."
I briefly made eye contact with the passenger and saw that familiar look of terror. She was about to receive what the TSA refers to as an "enhanced" pat-down, and perhaps a little firmer than normal, despite the fact that it was abundantly clear she posed zero risk to the aircraft.
Her crime? Questioning a TSA screener about the safety of its allegedly invasive and harmful body scanner.
I know about these retaliatory pat-downs. I refuse to use the scanners, a decision the agents tend to take personally. During my last opt-out, a screener in Denver was so aggressive that he almost pulled my pants down in front of everyone.
Folks, this shouldn't be happening in a free country.
I didn't see what happened to the young woman, but I know how she must have felt.
She's just one of five common passenger types you'll encounter at a TSA checkpoint. Who else are you likely to meet?
The get-alongs. This is by far the largest group of passengers. They just want to pass through the screening process with a minimum of hassle. They have nothing to hide, they figure, so just do what the people in the blue uniforms order them to do. They comply, obediently stepping into the full-body scanner and agreeing to a pat-down, because they "know" the TSA is just trying to keep everyone safe -- and despite the fact that even a small amount of research will reveal that almost nothing they're asked to do makes the flying experience any safer. Critics call these passengers "sheeple."
The elites. A smaller group of passengers and crewmembers are offered special screening privileges -- a dedicated line where they often don't have to remove their shoes or step through a poorly tested scanner. Pilots, flight attendants, and dignitaries fall into this category, but by far the largest subset belongs to those with TSA "pre-check" membership. These frequent fliers believe that because they've given an airline so much business, or have paid the federal government to run a background check, they deserve a less invasive screening. And they're partially correct. Actually, everyone deserves to be screened in that way.
The dissidents. An even smaller group of passengers opts out of the full body scanners, which means they get an automatic, prison-style pat-down. These brave contrarians know that opting out takes up valuable screener time, and they understand that a pat-down can feel even more invasive than a quick scan. But that's fine with them. For many reasons, they believe the government has no business asking them to submit to a scan, and they're willing to make that point whenever they fly. Many opt-outs feel they have a lot in common with the civil rights activists of the 1960s. One day, when the scanners are decommissioned and the world recognizes how far the federal government overreached, maybe their protests will be more appreciated than they are today.
The victims. An even smaller group of passengers doesn't realize it yet, but they're about to become a headline, a viral video, or at the very least, a complaint letter to the TSA. Thanks to a misunderstanding, or a cruel TSA agent or a federal screener who has no values and steals from the passengers he's assigned to protect, the screening will go terribly wrong. It may not happen often when compared to the millions of travelers who fly every week, but it ought to happen less than it does -- a lot less.
The ignorant. The smallest group of passengers are the dummies who pack loaded revolvers, souvenir hand grenades, and machetes in their carry-on luggage and expect to get through security. Too many actually do. A vast majority of these "armed" passengers turn out to just be careless mistakes; a handful are done intentionally. One in a billion are done with the objective of bringing down a plane. No matter what, you can bet the TSA will tout the confiscation and inevitable arrest on its blog every week. Critics can do nothing but shake their heads at these incidents. The only thing they squabble over is the propaganda value of the confiscations. Taking away a gun, say agency-watchers, doesn't necessarily mean you've stopped another 9/11.
I've met most of these passengers either at the airport or after their flight. By and large, they all have one thing in common: They just want to get from point A to point B with a minimum of hassle. And the paramilitary blueshirts pushing them through scanners, prodding them, and in some cases stealing from them, are a hindrance, not a help, in that regard.
Shouldn't it be the other way around? Shouldn't our taxpayer-supported federal screeners be making the process easier instead of harder? At the very least, shouldn't the TSA try to do a better job of telling one group apart from the other?