As she waited for her flight from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to Medford, Ore., last month, Linda Morrison noticed something unusual in the waiting area.
"A lady in a TSA uniform came over, put on her rubber gloves and went up and down the rows of seats, choosing bags to go through," remembered Morrison, a retired corporate recruiter who lives in Seattle. "She didn't identify herself, didn't give a reason for the search. She seemed to be targeting larger carry-on bags."
Morrison was stunned. She expected to be screened at the designated checkpoint area, or maybe at the gate, where the TSA sometimes randomly checks passengers as they board. But this was different. "To me, it just felt like an illegal search performed by a police state," she said.
There's that phrase again: police state. It's being thrown about a lot more since November's pat-down/opt-out fiasco, as public anger over the TSA's new security measures remains high. That makes the question of whether we're traveling in a police state, or something like it, worth taking seriously.
At least one other reader also reported the searches described by Morrison, also in Seattle. Is the TSA testing some new, more aggressive screening procedure in Seattle? I asked the agency.
"TSA officers at airports nationwide routinely screen passengers at the gate area using a variety of methods, including physically searching bags and using explosives detection technology," said agency spokesman Greg Soule. "This additional layer of security is part of our unpredictable approach to keep passengers safe and reduce the risk of dangerous items being carried on planes."
As is often the case with the TSA's answers, I can't tell whether that's a yes or a no.
I decided to put the police-state question to an expert on repressive regimes. Mariam Memarsadeghi is a Washington-based human rights activist. "It's absurd to liken the annoyances brought on by airport security to life under a police state," she said. Memarsadeghi notes that the threat American air travelers face isn't from the government but from international terrorist networks.
So maybe the term "police state" isn't quite right, then.
Jeff Stollman, a security and privacy consultant in Philadelphia, thinks that "annoying" better describes air travel in 2011. He's irked by what he calls "security theater" that offers no real protection against terrorism.
The TSA has also indicated that it wants to move the perimeter of aviation security screening beyond the airport, to checkpoints on the road, according to Chris Calabrese, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. If these roving searches are tolerated within the terminal and are allowed to jump to the street, there's no telling what might come next.
Not all travelers have accepted these new procedures. The Electronic Privacy Information Center has filed a suit against the government, claiming that the TSA violated the Constitution and five federal laws when it deployed body scanners for primary screening at U.S. airports. There are also numerous proposed laws to curb the TSA's power by either defunding the body scanners or making dissemination of scanner photos illegal.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. Read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org, or e-mail him at email@example.com.