A Georgian Grandmother’s Take on the TSA

A student I know writes,

My grandmother and I have a unique relationship. We talk about the usual family gossip, but we really get into it when we talk about politics. Why is this unique? Because my grandmother is in her eighties and she lives in Tbilisi, Georgia. Having spent my formative years in the U.S., I make sure to tell her of the liberties that I take for granted that she did not have for the majority of her life in Communist Russia. I tell her that I could support any candidate running for office without fear of retribution from the sitting party (or can I?). Unlike her, I don’t have to fear being audited by the KGB if I support the opposing party (or do I?) (OK maybe I am safe from the KGB). Unlike her, I could become a journalist and try to uncover the truth without fear of being investigated for criminal conspiracy (or can I?). Unlike her, I could rely on my government to tell me the truth about what is going on in the world (or can I?). Unlike her, I am protected by the Constitution to say what I want without being punished (or am I?).

My grandmother does not like being told that she is missing out on these basic liberties by not being in the U.S. (or is she?). Recently, my grandmother visited us in the U.S., and then she visited some family in Israel. She told me about her experience at JFK International Airport. She told me how she was patted down. She told me how she had to stand for what felt like hours (Georgians tend to exaggerate) waiting for the honor to be patted down. She told me how strangers rummaged through her bags. She told me how the TSA threw out her water bottle and how she had to buy another one inside the airport for $3 so she can take her medicine. She told me how rude the TSA agents were to her. She told me how hard it was for her to remove her shoes and then she told me how frustrated she was when she found out she did not have to. I tried to tell her that this is the price we all pay to make sure we have a safe society.

She knew I was going to say that. That’s when she told me about her experience flying to the U.S. and flying from Israel back home. She told me that she was treated with respect and sensitivity. She told me that there were no pat downs, no waiting, no shoe drama, no bag drama, and no “administrative” searches and seizures. I told her it sounds like the security at those airports is lacking. She was not having it. She said there have been no terrorist attacks from those airports and she did research (research-really?) and in fact those airports are safer than their U.S. counterparts. I was stumbling. She was just getting warmed up. Then she went for the jugular. She asked me, oh by the way, whose society is really free?

I realized that in Russia the government knows what you have before you get to the airport so there is no reason for the authorities to scrutinize low-risk passengers. In Israel, law enforcement could track people suspected of terrorism and some form of profiling is prevalent at Ben-Gurion Airport so again there is no need to burden the elderly. However, the U.S. does not use as much profiling nor can the authorities track people’s movements without some kind of judicial oversight. This is the upshot of the discrepancy between how my grandmother was treated at the three airports. My grandmother said she agreed with me and she added that she does not mind being tracked or profiled as long as she can have her dignity and her water while she is traveling.

I asked her if I could write about our exchange. She said sure, but she warned me against using my name. (She said I could use hers, but it’s probably not a good idea because that’s too easy to track. I better listen to her — she has more experience with this stuff.)

Myself, I’d rather undergo some difficulties at the airport rather than live in a surveillance state, but this either goes to show that tastes vary, or that tastes in what counts as freedom are to some extent defined by culture and expectations. Of course, there’s always the possibility that we may end up with both the surveillance and the TSA.

Previously: I write about my grandmother — names and all — in “Rose Burawoy, Political Scientist”.

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6 Responses to A Georgian Grandmother’s Take on the TSA

  1. Peter Lederer says:

    Used to be that re-reading Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here” every decade or so seemed sufficient. Annual refreshers may now be advisable. And has anyone else noticed that each successive version of TSA’s getup seems to be more militaristic?

  2. Matt says:

    “I realized that in Russia the government knows what you have before you get to the airport so there is no reason for the authorities to scrutinize low-risk passengers.”

    Perhaps this is an odd confusion of the old Soviet Union w/ Russia, but otherwise I have idea what this means. (I’ve been to the airport a lot in Russia, too. They are a huge mess and often pretty unpleasant, though perhaps getting better, but the above statement, if I can make sense of it at all, is just false of Russia.) Security at Russian airports is pretty bad (see the blowing up of some flights fairly recently- I don’t think a huge amount has changed.) One thing that is different is the _exit_ passport control that everyone must go through, though it’s likely that the “secure borders” crowd in congress will make something like that happen in the US, too, as they try to track everyone who comes in and out. But, it’s just not true that security is less in Russian airports because there is more survailence elsewhere. Security is bad there because the government is corrupt and incompetent, as are huge amounts of the people who work for it.

  3. Earl Killian says:

    It might be a more interesting debate if security experts like Bruce Schneier (http://www.schneier.com) weren’t pointing out that much of what the TSA does is “security theater” rather than security.

    The other thing to remember about the US is that we have these periodic plunges into insanity (e.g. the Patriot Act is like the sixth instance of such legislation in US history), but we usually seem to recover. I don’t know whether to complain that we don’t seem to learn from history or just be grateful that we seem to return to a decent, practical balance of things after a decade or so. (Many places never get back to a good balance, unlike the US.)

  4. Vic says:

    Many people, even in this country, feel more secure and safe in the warm embrace of a giant State. After the Soviet Union fell, and fell into chaos, a lot of former Soviets pines for the return of a Stalin to set things right. In this country we have people pining for Socialist programs with Government “making everyone happy” by saving us our actual human nature.

    The natural desire of many modern people, is to be a sheep. They convince themselves that being a sheep is worthwhile by noting the other happy sheep. But a sheep is still a sheep, and the slaughterhouse is just a season away…

  5. Barry says:

    Agreeing with Matt here – Michael, you’re making a huge assumption that what the TSA does is necessary.

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