Rand Paul and Ron Paul Overreact to TSA Pat-Downs

Today Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) entered the Nashville airport and set off the security scanner. He then refused a TSA pat down, which resulted him being – in his words – “detained” by TSA agents. After two hours of his refusal, he was allowed to reenter the fully body scanning machine, at which point he was cleared to continue on his way. 

Was Paul trying to make a political point, or was he simply incensed by the requirement that he be patted down? Regardless of his intention, his father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), spoke out about the incident, saying that the “police state in this country is growing out of control.” He then touted his Restore America Plan, which among other things, would eliminate the TSA completely. Under his plan, the TSA would no longer be able to grab and grope our “kids and seniors.”

These are powerful words, but what of this Paul double team? Should we get rid of the TSA, and should we follow Rand Paul and be righteously indignant about having to be patted down? Possibly yes to the former, and probably no to the latter. 

Passenger volume through airports is expected to increase about 25% over the next eight years. By 2024, the TSA will be expected to screen 1 billion people annually, and the there has not been sufficient progress toward making security checkpoints safe.

Though Paul didn't make this nuanced argument, he could, if he wanted to, convince me that the TSA should be replaced by someone else, possibly private contractors supervised in the right way. This would be an especially attractive option if contractors were paid for performance in a rigorous way – for example they could be paid a flat rate with specified penalties for how many screening failures they allow to take place (TSA schedules tests against their systems currently and this practice could continue). In this way, companies would have an incentive to do what the TSA has failed to do for almost a decade now: meeting the simple recommendations of the 9/11 commission, as a 2006 GAO report found. Rep. John Mica, (R-Fla.) Chairman of the House Transportation Committee said “the whole program has been hijacked by bureaucrats.”

But for all this, the label of police state isn't the right one. The issue is one of bureaucracy and efficiency, not civil rights and police powers. R & R need to just cool their jets a little bit. 

Consider first that for all the muckraking of people like R(on) & R(and), a comprehensive review of the TSA by the office of the inspector general showed that TSA screeners were adequately trained, notified people of their rights, and that male and female passengers were screened proportionately. I'm not saying that there aren't cases of wrongdoing, but only that institutionally, things aren't that bad. 

Furthermore, the function being performed is an essential one. The TSA isn't harassing people out in the streets – you only encounter their coercive government power when you go to the airport, and it's obvious why we have a TSA: because planes make good weapons. Even private contractors would have to search you somehow. They might think of different ways to do it, but you would still have to wait in line before going into an airport and be subject to the authority of whoever was in charge of protecting that particular checkpoint.

The last thing to note is that in Rand Paul's specific situation, private contractors might have made things worse. If contractors and airline companies found out that the safest and most efficient way to conduct certain types of searches was through a pat down, then they would not provide for the option to go back into the machine. A redundant system of airport checks allows individuals to choose (within reason) how they want to be searched, which is an option that adds to their control of the situation and to their sense of dignity throughout the whole searching process. 

For Rand, I think he was playing to the electorate a little bit and just being stubborn. Did he even file a formal complaint? They have a procedure for that after all...

Photo Credit: Circulating

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Jordan Wolf

My training is partially in philosophy and I'm interested in democratic theory, but more practically, I like thinking about media sophistication, data in politics, and ways to curb partisanship.

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