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Beware the Depends Bomber

The TSA's latest ritual humiliation of an innocent traveler

Gene Healy
June 28, 2011

Editor's Note: This column is reprinted with permission of the Washington Examiner. Click here to read it at that site.

On June 18, officers of the Transportation Security Administration forced a wheelchair-bound, 95-year-old leukemia patient to remove her adult diaper, lest it contain a bomb. As always when the TSA commits some new atrocity—like last April's "freedom fondle" of a 6-year-old girl—a designated bureaucratic spokes-unit affirmed that the officers acted "according to proper procedure."

As my colleague Julian Sanchez observes, it's bizarre to think we're supposed to find it comforting "that everything is being done by the book—even if the 'book' is horrifying." Wouldn't you rather hear that such actions were the work of overzealous line officers, instead of policies vetted and approved at the highest levels of the federal government?

Worse still, in a classic case of "mission creep," TSA is taking its show on the road and the rails.

Remember when, pushing his bullet-train boondoggle in the 2011 State of the Union, President Obama cracked that it would let you travel "without the pat-down"? Not funny—also, not true.

Earlier this year, Amtrak passengers in Savannah, Ga., stepped off into a TSA checkpoint. Though the travelers had already disembarked the train, agents made women lift their shirts to check for bra explosives. Two weeks ago, armed TSA and Homeland Security agents hit a bus depot in Des Moines, Iowa, to question passengers and demand their papers.

These raids are the work of TSA's "Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response" (VIPR or "Viper") teams—an acronym at once senseless and menacing, much like the agency itself.

On June 14, TSA head John Pistole informed Congress that VIPR teams had carried out "over 3,700 operations in mass transit and passenger railroad venues" over the last year—and the agency wanted funding for more.

Meanwhile, no thanks to TSA, Al Qaeda looks increasingly harried, desperate, and weak.

Earlier this month, al Qaeda-ist Adam Gadahn—"Azzam the American" by his rap handle—put out a video urging American Muslims, "Do not rely on others, take the task upon yourself." He noted that "America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms, what are you waiting for?"

Predictably, The Washington Post and the Daily Kos seized on the report to stoke fear and urge Congress to close the "gun show loophole."

But Gadahn's call is best seen as a mark of how far Al Qaeda has fallen—and how they're anything but an "existential threat" to America. On Sept. 11, they left a smoking hole in the Manhattan skyline. Now, for their follow-up, 10 years later, they hope some kid will take the initiative and shoot up a shopping mall.

Even supposing that what's left of Al Qaeda is clever and resourceful enough to recruit kindergartners and elderly leukemia patients, it's not at all clear that tactic would be successful. Risk analysts Mark Stewart and John Mueller report that when the Christmas crotch-bomber's "effort was duplicated on a decommissioned plane in a test set up by the BBC, the blast did not breach the fuselage, leading air accident investigator Capt. J. Joseph to conclude, 'I am very confident that the flight crew could have taken this aeroplane without any incident at all and get it to the ground safely.' "

A free people ought to be brave enough not to quake before the imaginary threat of a Depends bomber. No society can be made perfectly safe, and, in the pursuit of safety, certain policies ought to be considered beyond the pale.

We can debate whether waterboarding falls into that category, but ritual humiliation of innocent citizens surely qualifies. TSA's abuses are making our choice ever clearer: Assume some risk ... or assume the position.

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and author of The Cult of the Presidency: America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power (Cato 2008). He is a columnist at the Washington Examiner, where this article originally appeared. Click here to read it at that site.



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