Thirty-two members of Congress have written letters to the Transportation Security Administration asking it to upgrade its screening policies. For a federal arm known more these days for intractable gridlocks than unified action, the letter is notable in itself. But so is the topic that the lawmakers have taken up: updating screening policies to ensure that transgender individuals get equal and fair treatment.
Last week Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and colleagues from Massachusetts, New York and other states submitted a letter to the TSA's administrator, Peter Neffenger, calling for a "complete and thorough review of [TSA's] current procedures."
The letter came in response to a report that a transgender individual had been subjected to humiliating treatment while attempting to board a plane. The agency said in response to the complaint that screeners "are trained to properly screen members of the transgender community" and that a review of the video taken at the time "indicated personnel followed TSA's strict guidelines."
Flight security has never been a popular concept, certainly not in the United States. For much of the American public, flying in comfort is an assumed right; being subjected to probing questions, delays, pat-downs and changing criteria for boarding is not.
That's often a problem for the TSA, whose employees are tasked with figuring out whether a passenger could be a terrorist or another potential security threat -- while striving to follow what may seem to some as excessively narrow, and often incomplete, guidelines.
But as congressional members have pointed out, procedures that were acceptable in the past don't always keep pace with a changing society. The members have called for better public education about procedures and the public's rights; information that Shadi Petosky, the transgender flyer mentioned above, said was not made available at the time.
The truth is, the U.S. needs an agency like the TSA -- one that will conduct the difficult business of making sure planes, trains, and other business and personal transport are safe for the public. And oftentimes, accepting that fact may be a harder pill to swallow for Americans than whether we have to stand in line and subject ourselves to an inspection that the guy before us didn't have to endure.
There always will be controversies and debacles when it comes to public security. The job of airport screeners is to search and identify potential threats as a means of keeping passengers, crews and airplanes safe. And that means asking questions and subjecting people to searches that seem invasive and often controversial.
But perhaps it's not just the TSA that needs to listen to feedback. Oftentimes we forget that that the airport screener's only personal protection is his cognition, training and exceptional skill in recognizing a threat before it can occur. No other federalized security personnel are required to do their jobs without the ability to protect themselves, nor in a setting where the murder of an unarmed security officer is termed as an acceptable loss in the face of a greater potential tragedy.
Obviously, security protocols must be able to keep up with a changing society. But I wonder if the reverse is also true and whether Homeland Security should consider a more vigilant public relations program that educates the traveling public about why the TSA does its job. Awkward questions that fumble on insensitive personal matters and time-consuming screening procedures are often the sign that, however difficult the process, someone is looking out for the passenger's safety.
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.