A retired Air Force Lt. Colonel apparently was arrested at a TSA airport checkpoint after she refused to stop reciting the Fourth Amendment of the Bill of Rights (“Searches and Seizures”) while she was being screened. You can read her account here.
I’m not going to jump on the bandwagon of the various commentators from both sides of the political spectrum who are leading condemnation of the incident. My interest is in the ethics of the encounter and its subsequent reporting, as I do not see this as an example of official abuse and suppression of rights.
I object to much of how the Department of Homeland Security and the TSA has handled airport screening policy since 2001, as I discussed in this post and elsewhere. I agree that the public should not meekly accept what it regards as unjustified intrusions on their privacy, dignity and health, and that complaining, petitioning the government, putting pressure on elected and appointed officials and leveling criticism in various forums is a necessary and reasonable response. Nevertheless, the episode described in the accounts of this arrest has been mischaracterized. It was a situation in which TSA agents were placed in an impossible situation for the purpose of generating third-party indignation. The woman engaging in the protest also targeted individuals who can only be called innocent parties, the TSA screeners. They have a job, they have procedures to follow, and they have to follow them. They also have a lousy job, having to brush up against the privates of strangers while being glared at or verbally abused.
My question, as with many protests, is, “What was the objective here?” To be as annoying as possible? To cause a scene? To let everyone in the vicinity know that the woman objected to the procedures? To come as close to interfering with the screening process as possible without justifying an arrest? To get her name in the papers? To delay her fellow passengers, most of whom just want to get through the vile process and make their flights?
Or to get arrested?
My bet is on the latter: that’s what civil disobedience is, after all, and I salute the effort, if that’s what you want to do. Personally, I think most civil disobedience is pointless, deluded, self-glorifying, and, as in this case, inconveniences everyone but the decision-makers who the protest is trying to influence. Still, it is grand American tradition, and keeps Henry Thoreau in the public consciousness, so go for it. But if the purpose is to get arrested, why is the TSA being condemned and ridiculed for doing what the protester wanted? Ken concludes his Popehat article about the incident (from which I learned of it: thanks, Ken!) by saying:
“…We ought to make violating our rights an unpleasant and humiliating experience for the people who take money to do it. I applaud people brave enough to do so, in hopes that it will bring more public attention to the subject.”
OK. That’s a valid position, but if that is the objective, why is an arrest that is the direct and predictable result of making doing their job “an unpleasant and humiliating experience” unexpected, outrageous or wrong? The woman titled her account “The TSA Arrests Me For Using the Fourth Amendment As A Weapon.” That’s an intentional mischaracterization; I would also call it a lie. Similarly, Ken’s opening sentence in his critique “What would happen if, while submitting to a TSA search of some sort, you started reading from the owner’s manual [meaning the Constitution]?” is cute and effective, but deceitful. “What would happen if, while submitting to a TSA search of some sort, you started performing Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First? routine or singing the Marseillaise?” would be just as accurate, but nowhere near as provocative. The TSA arrested the protester for interfering with an official and required security procedure by making the execution of the screening “an unpleasant and humiliating experience”—which was the protester’s objective.
The screener asked her to stop reciting the Fourth Amendment because she said it made it difficult for her to concentrate on the procedure. Critics are mocking that: they should shut up. I have had screeners, who obviously are supposed to go by the book (“YES, I know what you are going to do; NO, I don’t need a private screening; NO, I don’t need to hear about the back of your hands and my sensitive areas because you guys do this to me about ten times a month—get on with it!”), ask me to stop joking with them while they are feeling me up (I have an artificial hip, and go through this a lot) using the same rationale. (It can’t be because they don’t think I’m funny: I am hilarious). Do you doubt it? Try reciting the Gettysburg Address while someone is serenading you with “The Major General’s Song.” The TSA agents weren’t objecting to the Fourth Amendment; they were objecting to the distraction. And whether the protester thought her Fourth Amendment recitation was sufficient to interfere with the agent’s duties is irrelevant: all that matters is whether the agent felt distracted. Maybe the passenger had an irritating voice. Maybe the agent had a headache. It doesn’t matter. The agent asked her to stop talking, because it the agent felt it was interfering with her duties, meaning that the distraction could have caused her to miss something. That is not unreasonable.
Of course, indignant blog posts are part of the desired result of such incitements, and giving bloggers an opportunity to write them is one reason to get arrested. I understand. I don’t agree with the strategy, but I’m not saying it is wrong. What is wrong is mischaracterizing what happened. A woman was not arrested for reciting the Fourth Amendment during a screening, and she was not being mistreated by being arrested. A woman who cleverly chose the Bill of Rights, rather than “Green Eggs and Ham” to annoy a TSA agent who was just trying to do her job was properly arrested, as the protester either intended, or should have expected.