Anyone viewing the YouTube video of the 6-year-old girl being subjected to an intrusive patdown search by a security agent in New Orleans would be shocked and a little disgusted. While the first priority of the Transportation Security Administration has to be air travel safety and security, the agency also has an obligation to respect human dignity and conduct its activities in a sensitive way. The video demonstrates an agency concerned with little beyond following bureaucratic, one-size-fits-all procedures.
In the video, a female screener is seen reaching into the child's waistband and running her hands over her body. The reaction of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was to declare that he "wouldn't want (his) granddaughter treated like that," but the official word from the TSA was a tone-deaf defense: The screener had "followed proper current screening procedures." The agency also has promised to review its rigidly uniform screenings and potentially make modifications this year.
But this isn't the first time that the TSA's intrusions into passenger privacy caused a public backlash. The agency's whole-body imaging machines, now in airports around the nation, created an uproar due to the graphic outlines of a person's body displayed to an off-site screener. Passengers who chose to opt out, and others, were subjected to the new, enhanced patdowns, leading to the famous incident in San Diego in which airline passenger John Tyner became an instant folk hero when he told a TSA agent: "If you touch my junk, I'll have you arrested."
This kind of bad publicity and public pressure has pushed the TSA to consider alternatives. The agency is testing software that would allow its body imaging machines to display only a generic outline of a human frame. That would go a long way in addressing public antipathy and suspicion toward machines that have been dubbed electronic strip-searches. The TSA needs to hurry up and roll out those changes.
If real reform doesn't come soon, the TSA will be in danger of losing public support for its safety mission. Procedures have to change so that presumptively innocent passengers and their children aren't physically accosted as a condition of getting from place to place.
Travelers shouldn't feel that they must check their dignity when checking their luggage.