by Joe Shea
November 19, 2010
THE GUN UNDER GRANDMA'S CUSHION
BRADENTON, Nov. 19, 2010 -- Over the phone, his voice was raspy but it carried that certain weight federal agents' always do. He was growing sick of the constant criticism, the charges he called "false" being hurled at the Transportation Security Administration and its screeners at America's airports.
Each day, rotating through various posts at the screening station, he spends about 30 seconds studying a blurred X-ray as passengers bound for here and gone go through a machine and sometimes get referred to the intrusive pat-downs of their genitals as they wait to board an airplane.
Some are Amish women, who for reasons probably best left obscure often carry a large number of large stickpins under their long dresses, usually at the waist.
"I don't know why they need these things," he said, but due to them a large percentage of Amish women in long dresses get referred to the private screening area. There, they lift or roll up their dresses to the waist and are inspected by the same intrusive hands that search hundreds of thousands of would-be passengers for contraband and weapons every day.
The women, of course, are members of a religion that is obdurately non-violent; they and their children and husbands won't fight in this nation's wars, and they often have none of even the most mundane modern conveniences. Yet those stickpins - wielded in the event of a sudden assault, for instance - would pierce an eye, pop an eardrum or go through a hand. And in the lore of Amish America, there's undoubtedly a thousand stories of how they did.
This morning, Charles Krauthammer, a conservative who appears on FoxNews, slams the pat-downs as "unnecessary" and "ridiculous" searches in his Washington Post column. Krauthammer, of course, travels a lot, and a crippling disease has confined him to a wheelchair.
And it was such a wheelchair - no made-up facts here - that approached the passenger screening station at an airport in Virginia one morning not long ago. The woman in it, pushed by an adult child, was heavyset and unable to walk on her own. In her 70s, she was precisely the kind of person it seems "ridiculous" and "unnecessary" to search.
Beneath the thick foam-rubber cushion Grandma sat on in the wheelchair was a loaded .45 caliber pistol. Next week, the pat-downs face their first big test as 24 million Americans head to Thanksgiving reunions with families and friends - to Grandma's house, as the narrative goes.
America is not quite so predictable as it once was. Terrorists have used very small children - another fragment of the population most people would deign to search - and very old omen as suicide bombers, along with young women, grinning teenagers and upwardly mobile young men. While nearly all have been of Arab descent, some have not. In Ireland, for instance, where the Real IRA is trying to restart the 300-year Troubles, bombers are white, although not usually bent on suicide.
Bombings are probably less common in the United States than anyone would think watching tv or going to the movies, but a 2006 Justice Dept. report said that in a statistical sample of terrorist plots, the FBI misreported information on 24 of the 26 sampled cases, and all statistics from its Criminal Division and from U.S. Attorney's offices were misreported. "We learned the collection and reporting of terrorism statistics within the Department is decentralized and haphazard," the DOJ report says.
Statistics aside, though, it takes only one box cutter, .45 pistol, stickpin, or instance of bomb-laden underwear or shoe to pose a deadly threat to hundreds of airline passengers. My caller said he is utterly mindful of the need to stay alert and study the X-rays. He can't see the person passing through the station, he added, but an agent next to him (who doesn't see the X-ray) does see the passenger - and if alerted by something metallic or contraband liquids on the screen or in the luggage, will call a supervisor.
People with artificial metal elements in their hips, knees, arms, feet - screws, old bullets, swallowed nails or whatever - will be subjected to the pat-downs. Elderly women, young children, strong and angry men - it doesn't matter. The images are not saved, he said.
"We don't like doing it any more than another person would. We're normal people. But that's our job," he said. He added that he sometimes ask for a different agent to conduct his own pat-downs based on his perception of whether an agent is gay or not, and he is always allowed to do that. Meanwhile, agents are always being tested by a man who flies around the country trying to get contraband through airport screening, he said.
Agents also find themselves searching women who turn out to be men and men who turn out to be women. Who pats them down is either the luck of the draw or a declaration by the passenger, and whoever they are, they can always get a different agent. In the private screening areas, they can always have a family member or other observer with them.
Now, he said, a new generation of X-ray machines is being tested that will not show any controversial images; instead, they will show stick-like figures with black dots where any suspicious or at least unnatural objects are. Those areas would then be searched. An article in today's Seattle Times backs up that claim.
Listening to the TSA agent speak at length about his job was strangely reassuring. I expected to hear about a lot of agent-level dissent over the new practices, but he said it's not there. I supect the new procedures, however uncomfortable, help agents feel more certain they have not let a killer onto an airplane. And while some may be lazy or bored, the TSA agent said, most take that goal of public safety very, very seriously. He certainly did.
The agent said he and other agents were extensively trained in the new pat-down procedure; each had to go through a five-hour course devoted to it. The training never stops, he said. If their employment is interrupted, they need to go through the same extensive background investigation by Homeland Security they did the first time they applied. Transfers are common, for either convenience of commuting or family reasons. Many of the agents are ex-cops, and some date or share apartments with one another.
To the extent there is dissent in the ranks these days, it probably is focused on pay; unlike the rest of the federal civil service, the TSA agents aren't paid terribly well, and don't have the G-classifications that help them know where they are in the scheme of things or which way is up through the ranks.
As the debate over the new pat-downs rage, the pressure to moderate the searches is growing. So far, it has been steadfastly resisted. A San Diego congressman, Rep. Dave Filner, plans to ask for Congressional hearings on the pat-downs soon.
For me, it is a repugnant practice and another indication Big Government is too big. A grandmother with a .45 pistol under her seat cushion changed that view a little, though. I'm in no rush to get to Kingdom Come.
TSA agents are not authorized to talk to the media. To protect the person's employment, some identifying information in this story was altered or withheld.