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TSA Shatters Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving

November 22, 2010

On March 6, 1943, American painter and illustrator Norman Rockwell gave us his version of Thanksgiving Day in the classic painting that appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post called Freedom of Want.

It was part of his four freedoms series, and the iconic image depicts a happy American family sharing abundance and thanks around the dining room table, and has become a nostalgic symbol of the way Americans want this traditional holiday to be.

This image is a little different in 2010, especially for the millions of people who will be traveling through America’s airports, on what is known to be the busiest travel time of the year.

For airport travelers, the holiday scene as envisioned by Norman Rockwell will be replaced by imposing and sometimes threatening figures roaming the nation’s airports, otherwise known as Transportation Security Administration (TSA) guards.

In an ironic twist, the purpose of TSA security is to protect the public and ensure freedom of movement for passengers. Instead, many see this agency as bloated and out of control, and there are widespread reports of rudeness and intimidation of passengers by agents.

The issue came to a head last week when a California traveler named John Tyler videotaped his encounter with a TSA security guard who was about to give him all-body pat down. This led to Tyler’s infamous warning to the agent not to “touch my junk.”

Travelers are given the full body pat-down if they refuse to go through the full-body scanners that produce a naked image of the traveler.

These security techniques are considered invasive by many, and have led to a firestorm of criticism from the traveling public, and members of Congress.  The images of a burley TSA official giving a full body pat-down to a small child or 86-year-old grandmother has not enhanced the reputation of TSA among taxpayers.

TSA head John Pistole hasn’t fared too well in all of this either. His rationale for full body scans and pat-downs on children and little-old-ladies has not satisfied members of Congress. The pat-downs include a procedure whereby the clothed genital areas of passengers are touched, and this has led to more questions and some disgust.

Pistole is starting to get the message, saying at first that full body scans and pat-downs are in airports to stay, then telling the media that security is an evolving process that is continually being evaluated adjusted “to ensure that best practices are applied.”

Many travelers are indifferent or support TSA doing whatever it has to do to keep airports safe.  A closer look at TSA procedures and methods does provide some solace for persons on this side of the issue, but still, many security questions remain.

For example, at Washington Dulles Airport, there are only two full-body scanners in operation at the present time, although six more are on order, according to TSA. The agency does scan between 25,000-30,000 travelers daily, with either the full-body scanner or full pat-down.

TSA has no quota for scanning or patting-people down; they virtually operate the system on a first-come-first-serve basis. If the scanner machine is empty, the next person who walks through is either going to be subjected to the full body scanning machine or a full body pat-down.

This security system isn’t too sophisticated, and thus, if a terrorist (or ordinary traveler) simply waits until the scanning machines are occupied with someone else, they can walk through the regular metal detector, and not be subjected to the more invasive security techniques.

Many are calling on TSA to profile passengers, and scan or pat-down only those who would appear more likely to want to be a potential security risk or terrorist, instead of picking people at random.

This issue isn’t going away, and on the heels of the congressional mid-term elections, Congress does not want the public to be any angrier than it already is. Still, TSA has an $8 billion budget, and the agency isn’t doing much to endear itself to taxpayers, and it is about to receive much more scrutiny from Congress.

While Norman Rockwell’s Thanksgiving Day images remain in the minds of many, the reality is, those days are a thing of the past, in more ways than one.