Getting There: TSA officers star in 'Touch My Junk' video

Agency should be proud of employees' professionalism

November 28, 2010|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

If you've watched the infamous "If You Touch My Junk, I'll Have You Arrested" video on YouTube, you already know how excruciating it is to spend 15 minutes in the company of John Tyner — the California man who recorded his encounter with airport security.

If you haven't, don't bother. The video quality is abysmal. The audio is substandard. The script, largely written by Tyner himself in an unfortunately successful bid for folk hero status, is repetitive and trite.

The only redeeming thing about it is the businesslike, courteous performance of Transportation Security Administration officers who confronted the obnoxious and arrogant provocation by a young man who clearly views himself as their moral and intellectual superior.

The recording shows officers handling a difficult passenger with consummate professionalism. After Tyner refuses screening by advanced imaging technology and is diverted for a physical pat-down, an officer patiently explains the procedure so that there will be no surprises.

When Tyner issues his ridiculously hollow arrest threat, the officer betrays no rancor or even exasperation. He simply informs Tyner that in view of that statement, he is going to ask a supervisor to be present. That's exactly the right move under the circumstances.

When the female supervisor arrives, she too handles all of Tyner's imbecilic arguments — even those that border on personal insults — in a patient but firm manner. The TSA, with good reason, is commending the video to its employees as a virtual textbook on how to deal with a difficult customer.

The tape does reveal one instance of highly questionable conduct — but it doesn't come from the TSA officers. It comes when a man who identifies himself as Tyner's father tells the TSA employees that he is a retired law enforcement officer and asks for "professional courtesy."

"Professional courtesy" in police jargon is special treatment for a fellow law enforcement officer — such as when Cop A lets Cop B go without a ticket after clocking Cop B at 80 mph. It is a far-too-common form of corruption, and the TSA supervisor firmly but politely rejects the request, explaining that the security procedures must be followed.

The TSA officers had every reason to handle matters by the book. According to an officer, who wants to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to comment, the agency routinely tests employee performance by sending decoys through the checkpoints. For all the TSA officers at the San Diego airport knew, Tyner and the father might have been actors sent directly from headquarters to monitor how the officers would react when confronted by a full-of-himself, would-be martyr and a favor-seeking parent.

The officers would have passed with flying colors.

Some people appear to have hazy memories of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, so here's a recap: Lax, unprofessional, rent-a-cop security allowed armed hijackers to board four airliners and turn the planes into missiles that killed roughly 3,000 people, helped ignite two wars and pushed the economy into a serious downturn.

After that incident, a Republican administration correctly if belatedly moved to professionalize and regulate the business of providing security at the nation's airports. Thus was born the TSA, an agency created out of a bipartisan consensus that a repeat performance would not be tolerated. The policy has continued under a Democratic president.

In effect, we said as a nation, "Never again," and tasked TSA with the job of seeing that was not an idle promise. The agency started out by making do with the people hired by the private agencies that preceded it — some of them far from ideal employees.

In some people's minds, the image of the TSA remains frozen in those days. But in the years since then, the agency has moved to weed out slackers and to improve the quality of the work force through more selective hiring and better training. Many of its officers have military or law enforcement experience. Call a TSA officer a "jack-booted thug" or "pervert" and you might be talking to someone who has heard far worse insults in Arabic or Pashto.

Reasonable people can differ on whether the security measures adopted by those who head the agency are ideal. Personally, I suspect the TSA bigwigs could back off a few of the agency's more restrictive rules. I've lost a number of perfectly harmless corkscrews to my faulty memory of what is allowed in carry-on luggage.

But every time I've been told I couldn't take something aboard, the message has been delivered with impeccable courtesy. And I wouldn't want someone working in that position who would grant me — or you — an exception.

So can we at least agree to leave the personal insults against frontline TSA workers out of the debate? They're not interested in groping our precious "junk." They're not child molesters. They aren't stimulated by the sight of fuzzy human forms passing through an imaging machine. They find giving intrusive pat-downs every bit as distasteful as the people receiving them.

As for the TSA itself, one fact stands out: Since the agency's creation, nobody has hijacked or detonated an explosive aboard an aircraft that has taken off from U.S. soil. That's a pretty good performance for a group of people often described as fast food industry rejects — by people who couldn't flip a burger to save their lives.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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