The Humiliating History of the TSA
By: Darryl Campbell
Illustrations: Alex Castro
There’s no evidence two decades of pat-downs and shoe removal have made travelers any safer — so why does the theater of airport security persist?

People cry at airports all the time. So when Jai Cooper heard sobbing from the back of the security line, it didn’t really faze her. As an officer of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), she had gotten used to the strange behavior of passengers. Her job was to check people’s travel documents, not their emotional well-being.

But this particular group of tearful passengers presented her with a problem. One of them was in a wheelchair, bent over with her head between her knees, completely unresponsive. “Is she okay? Can she sit up?” Cooper asked, taking their boarding passes and IDs to check. “I need to see her face to identify her.”

“She can’t, she can’t, she can’t,” said the passenger who was pushing the wheelchair.

Soon, Cooper was joined at her station by a supervisor, followed by an assortment of EMTs and airport police officers. The passenger was dead. She and her family had arrived several hours prior, per the airport’s guidance for international flights, but she died sometime after check-in. Since they had her boarding pass in hand, the distraught family figured that they would still try to get her on the flight. Better that than leave her in a foreign country’s medical system, they figured. 

The family might not have known it, but they had run into one of air travel’s many gray areas. Without a formal death certificate, the passenger could not be considered legally dead. And US law obligates airlines to accommodate their ticketed and checked-in passengers, even if they have “a physical or mental impairment that, on a permanent or temporary basis, substantially limits one or more major life activities.” In short: she could still fly. But not before her body got checked for contraband, weapons, or explosives. And since the TSA’s body scanners can only be used on people who can stand up, the corpse would have to be manually patted down.

“We’re just following TSA protocol,” Cooper explained.

Her colleagues checked the corpse according to the official pat-down process. With gloves on, they ran the palms of their hands over the collar, the abdomen, the inside of the waistband, and the lower legs. Then, they checked the body’s “sensitive areas” — the breasts, inner thighs, and buttocks — with “sufficient pressure to ensure detection.” 

Only then was the corpse cleared to proceed into the secure part of the terminal. 

Not even death can exempt you from TSA screening.

Encounters like this happen “every day at every airport,” according to Scott Becker, who worked for the TSA at Chicago O’Hare between 2002 and 2015 and wrote a memoir about his experiences. He was one of the more than 40,000 new Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) that the agency hired in its first year of existence. But many new TSOs like Becker found  themselves with little to actually do — hence the “joke” that the agency’s acronym was really short for “Thousands Standing Around.”

Soon enough, however, the policies accumulated. Today, there are eight different tasks that TSOs might perform at a security checkpoint. These include checking documents, performing pat-downs, and “Divestiture,” a fancy term for telling people what items to put on the X-ray conveyor belt. Each task is heavily regulated and standardized. A TSA-approved pat-down, for example, consists of 18 individual steps, and pat-down training alone takes nearly three hours of classroom time. 

To ensure compliance with TSA policies, supervisors monitor TSOs via security cameras, random inspections, and regular covert tests. And they hand out discipline liberally. In most cases, TSOs spend their first two years on probation, during which time they can be fired for anything deemed to be “unacceptable performance or conduct.” 

This compliance fetish creates a lot of anxiety among the TSA’s front-line workers. “The lower the level you occupy in the organization, the more severe the punishment for committing an error in judgment,” writes Becker. “Everyone [is] always afraid of making a mistake and getting fired.”

“Officers are often referred to on the checkpoint as traitors, Nazis, or child molesters, even to their faces.”

A stylized x-ray illustration of keys, a wallet, a watch etc. in a tray ready for a security scan.

That anxiety gets transferred onto the flying public, too. From the moment we step into the security line until we are disgorged on the other side, shoeless and unbelted and without any liquids greater than 3.4 oz, we become Potential Threats, worthy of severe scrutiny. It’s not personal. It’s just policy. 

(I say “we,” but of course there are ways around it if you have enough money. The ultra-wealthy, who can afford to fly private, often don’t have to go through TSA at all. The merely rich can pay $3,500 a month for access to a members-only TSA screening line at LAX. And, at the bottom of the pecking order, those with a spare $85 or the right credit card perks can get TSA PreCheck.)

Every class struggle breeds resentment. I live in Texas, which means that sometimes I’ll get screened alongside some dude who decides to get a little mouthy. You guys must be pretty proud of yourselves, he’ll say, or, I can’t believe this is America. The TSOs usually respond with a shrug and, occasionally, an invitation to file an online complaint. The rest of us stare daggers at the offender — not so much because we have strong feelings for or against his behavior but because we all have planes to catch. Eventually, a TSO will gently offer him a plastic bin, and he’ll quiet down and put his stuff in there like the rest of us. It’s peer pressure as a de-escalation strategy.

But it doesn’t always work. “We have passengers that just hate TSA,” Becker continues. “Officers are often referred to on the checkpoint as traitors, Nazis, or child molesters, even to their faces.”

Cooper agrees. Passengers “start to disconnect us from being actual people just like them,” she says. “Just being spoken to all kinds of ways.”

Beyond its anemic YouTube channel, the agency makes little effort to combat the rising tide of passenger hostility. Unlike other law enforcement branches, the TSA has no TV development pipeline, no community outreach programs — not even a grassroots hashtag like #humanizethebadge. I know of only two examples of TSOs appearing as bona fide heroes in pop culture. One is Bernice Adams, one of the protagonists of Danielle Steel’s book Accidental Heroes; the other is Officer Rod Williams from the movie Get Out. Both follow similar character arcs. They understand the real threat long before anyone else, but as TSOs, no one takes them seriously. Accidental Heroes plays this for drama, Get Out for laughs. Both characters are vindicated in the end. (“I’m TS-motherfuckin’-A. We handle shit,” Officer Rod says.) 

This is pure fantasy. Real TSOs don’t conduct investigations on their own, don’t have the authority to arrest or detain people, and don’t even carry guns for the most part. Becker reminds people that the TSA’s job is to find “things that go boom, bang, or that burn.” That’s it. They have very little real power, zero cultural cachet, and are routinely targets of the Can-I-Speak-To-Your-Manager crowd. 

Yet, they can — and do — harass and abuse travelers who look a certain way.

Katie Abdou was 14 when she took her first post-9/11 flight in the spring of 2002. She had flown pretty regularly for the past six years, always as an “unaccompanied minor” — a program where airline employees escort flyers under the age of 18 from check-in until boarding. 

Still, she knew that security was going to be a lot more intense for her now. “My dad is Lebanese and Syrian, and my mom was Irish-Italian, so I have my mom’s coloring, but obviously, my last name is Middle Eastern.”

The initial screening wasn’t too bad, and she boarded her flight without any trouble. But just before the boarding door closed, an agent asked her to come back to the gate with her carry-on. There, she was escorted not by an airline employee but by a male TSO, who took her all the way back to the checkpoint and into a private screening room. 

He did not explain why she had to get screened a second time. Instead, he bombarded her with questions and searched her luggage. 

“I know I shouldn’t have,” she said, “but I was 14, and they weren’t telling me anything, so I made a joke like, ‘Do you think I have a bomb up my skirt?’ He didn’t find that very funny.”

Instead, he did a full-body pat-down on Abdou. He put his hands all up and down her body. He reached up her skirt and between her legs.

“He shouldn’t have done it,” she says. “It should have been a woman. He shouldn’t have been alone with me in a room.” 

Eventually, the officer finished and walked her back to her flight, which had been delayed because the search had taken so long. But the process left her shaken. 

“I didn’t tell anybody for the longest time because who do you tell about that when you’re 14?”

Twenty years later, she remains suspicious of the TSA. 

“Every time I go through security, I am terrified that something’s going to happen. I don’t even make eye contact with them anymore.”

“I’m reassuring the racist people: no worries, we got the brown one, we’re checking him real good.”

A stylized x-ray illustration of a pair of latex gloves

The TSA claims that it doesn’t “discriminate against travelers on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age, disability, genetic information, sexual orientation and parental status.” The statistics don’t support that claim, however. A 2019 Government Accountability Office study found that TSOs were responsible for more than 1,000 incidents of “potential discrimination and unprofessional conduct that involved race” over a two-year period. Sure, it’s a small proportion of the more than 800 million travelers screened every year. But not every incident gets reported. And not all of them affect just one person, like Abdou’s invasive screening. Sometimes, the system makes a public example out of an unlucky traveler. 

“I’m a Dutch-Egyptian game developer, and I happen to have seven Arabic names,” says Rami Ismail, co-founder of the indie studio Vlambeer. “For work, I travel to a lot of conferences around the world. Until 2019, it was about 300 days a year.”

Since 2013, he’s consistently gotten TSA “random checks” when he travels to the United States. Like Katie Abdou, Ismail’s experience with the TSA doesn’t end once he passes through the checkpoint. Often, he’ll get stopped for an extra security check during boarding, where he will get patted down in full view of the other passengers who are, somehow, exempt from this gate-side humiliation.

He has never gotten an official explanation for why the TSA subjects him to extra checks so often or even what purpose those checks serve. But he has a hunch.

“It’s not meant to make me feel safer, to make Black people feel safer, to make immigrants feel safer. It’s meant for white Americans, rich Americans: thank God, all these threats to my livelihood are being properly checked,” he says. “I’m reassuring the racist people: no worries, we got the brown one, we’re checking him real good.”

Sometimes, those checks backfire spectacularly. In 2017, TSOs in Detroit caused an international incident when they demanded that Canadian cabinet minister Navdeep Bains, a devout Sikh, remove his turban and undergo extra security screening. (Sikhs are not usually required to remove their turban, as it would violate their religious freedoms.) The TSOs did not relent until Bains produced his diplomatic passport, which proved that the US Government did not consider him a threat.

The TSA remained defiant in a formal apology letter: “In performing our screening activities, TSA neither uses nor condones unlawful profiling,” the letter read. “All screening decisions are based on the interests of aviation security.”

In military circles, there’s an apocryphal saying that generals always prepare to fight the last war rather than the next one. This is equally true in aviation security. Before 9/11, airport screening was designed to stop politically motivated “air piracy.” Between 1961 and 1972, American airliners got hijacked about once a month. But only one passenger was killed, and no airplanes were destroyed in this 11-year span. Even so, the Nixon administration directed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to begin security screening in airports in December of 1972. 

The FAA delegated responsibility to the airlines themselves, who in turn hired security contractors to man the checkpoints. Security checks were unobtrusive by design and were meant to thwart individual hijackers armed with guns, large knives, and explosives. The screening process obviously failed to stop an organized group of suicidal terrorists armed with mace and box cutters.

Sixty-nine days after 9/11, George Bush signed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, which centralized screening at airports under the newly formed Transportation Security Administration. 

“The events of September the 11th were a call to action,” said Bush after the bill’s signing ceremony. “We’re united to defend our country. And we’re united to protect our people.”

Bush — and, by extension, the TSA — tapped into the overwhelming sense of patriotism that swept the country in those first few months after the attacks. In a world that Bush neatly split in two — “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” — those who joined the TSA would publicly declare which side they were on.

Tens of thousands answered the call. But few realized exactly what they were getting into.

In 2018, Cooper applied for a job with the TSA in New York City. She studied criminal justice in college and always knew that she wanted to get into law enforcement. But she wasn’t ready to make a lifetime commitment to a single branch just yet or to risk the possibility of getting assigned to some random city far from home. For now, she wanted a job that would give her some experience in the field that would give her options later on.

She didn’t know anyone who worked for TSA, and no one in her criminal justice cohort at school applied for a job there. But on paper, it was a sensible choice. It would give her the opportunity to attend Federal Law Enforcement Training, the basic course required of new hires in the Secret Service, DEA, and more than 100 or so other agencies. Many state and local police officers attend as well. 

More than that, however, it gave her a purpose. “I joined because I understood why we were needed,” she said. “We do what we do to protect everybody.”

She passed the computerized tests, she passed both rounds of interviews, she got her security clearance, she got her Federal Law Enforcement Training certificate, and she started down what she thought would be her long-term career path.

That dream ended as soon as the first paycheck came in. Transportation Security Officers start at one of the lowest salaries in the entire federal government. The average annual salary for new hires starts around $35,000 but, with adjustments for experience and cost of living, can theoretically top $42,000. After a two-year probationary period, TSOs get a 15 percent salary bump. This is the last pay raise that many will ever see. One officer in Dallas said that he made only $3,000 a year more than a brand-new hire — and he had been at the TSA since the agency’s founding. Even in the best-case scenario, experienced TSA officers earn well below the national median for full-time workers.

No wonder TSA employees have the lowest job satisfaction of any Federal agency. It can barely recruit fast enough to keep up with attrition: for every four officers it hires, it loses three. And about one in five new hires quits in their first six months on the job. 

TSA employees have the lowest job satisfaction of any Federal agency. It can barely recruit fast enough to keep up with attrition.

A stylized x-ray image of a TSA badge

Those who stick around must endure a relentlessly hostile workplace. In 2009, the director of security at Dulles Airport forced a top-performing instructor, whose degenerative disability left him unable to stand for long periods, to work a front-line checkpoint role. Since he couldn’t do the job, he had no choice but to request a disability retirement. In 2014, a supervisor at the Charleston airport attempted to fire a TSO who reported him for falsifying his own time cards and committing safety violations. In 2018, three TSA administrators working in Hawaii raised operational concerns about several of the islands’ airports. Soon afterward, they were reassigned to the mainland — Seattle, Los Angeles, and Burbank — with only one business day’s notice and no regard for their families or their lives in Hawaii.

Sometimes, supervisors don’t even need a good reason to humiliate a TSO. In a YouTube video titled “TSA’s Revolving Door Culture,” former TSO Fazle Hasnain recounts a duty manager who yelled at him in front of an entire checkpoint just because he had called her by her first name.

When they’re not worrying about vindictive bosses, TSA employees can still lose their job for doing the right thing. One of Scott Becker’s colleagues stopped a physical assault on a Federal Air Marshal, only to receive an official reprimand for touching a passenger outside of the screening process, which is technically against TSA policy. Another TSO tried to detain a passenger who had a bag of cocaine in his pocket. In a desperate attempt to try and avoid getting arrested, the passenger threw the open bag right in the officer’s face. Although the passenger was the one breaking the law, the officer feared for his job anyway. As members of law enforcement, TSOs are subject to random drug testing, and those who receive a positive result are automatically fired. The officer would not have been able to claim mitigating circumstances, even though any ingestion would have been inadvertent and the direct result of performing his official duties. Luckily, a quick trip to the hospital confirmed that he had no trace of cocaine in his blood, and he never got called in for a random test.

Last year, the TSA finally allowed its employees to enjoy full membership privileges in the American Federation of Government Employees, the union that represents more than 700,000 federal workers around the country. The AFGE can now help TSOs fight against harassment or unfair disciplinary practices and can lobby Congress to improve the rights of TSA workers in general. But there’s still work to be done. The TSA remains officially exempt from Title 5 of the Federal Code, which means that it does not have to follow the same standards for pay, leave, and performance as all other government workers. It also can’t do much about mandatory overtime caused by staffing issues or forced work without pay during government shutdowns.

Knowing all that, I ask Cooper if the TSA does anything to help officers cope with the stresses of the job. She laughs.  

“We don’t have support groups. We would usually just joke about things later.”

She pauses for a moment.

“It’s just that you have to be able to not take things personal, honestly. Everybody should try and meet on a middle ground and just have patience.”

But sometimes, the TSA questions the very personhood of travelers. Victoria Scott is an automotive journalist with The Drive and often flies around the country to test-drive pre-production cars for work. “I’ve been flying probably two or three times a month for most of the last year,” she says. “I travel a decent amount.”

Because she’s a trans woman, Scott is virtually guaranteed a TSA pat-down when she goes through security. The TSA uses what it calls “Advanced Imaging Technology” body scanners “to detect threat objects carried on persons entering airport sterile areas.” In order to work properly, however, the scanner has to know your gender so it can use its “gender-specific algorithms” to highlight “areas on the body warranting further screening.” And there are only two options: male or female.

Scott always causes the scanners to alarm.

“I fly dressed very femme and wearing makeup because that’s how I am,” she says. “When they scan me as a woman, my crotch sets it off. When they use the male scan button, my bra and my breasts set it off. No matter what I do short of getting surgery, I can’t pass because every time it scans my body, it recognizes an anomaly. They’re usually like, ‘Oh, something in your groin region set it off. We need to pat you down.’”

Usually, she just endures the ritual humiliation of a pat-down so she can get on with her day. But a recent TSA experience at her home checkpoint has made her a lot more anxious about flying. 

After setting off the body scanner, she went to the pat-down area, where two officers were waiting for her: a trainee and a supervisor. During the pat-down, Scott remarked that this happens to her a lot because she flies very often. 

“Well, do you enjoy it?” asked the supervisor. “Because if you don’t enjoy it, you could dress as your birth gender.”

Scott was stunned. Here was a law enforcement officer basically asking her if she enjoyed getting felt up every time she flew. 

“I so badly wanted to say something — anything at all,” she says. “But I couldn’t. Because she can ruin my day. She can detain me and keep me from going on my trip. I have no power.”

Once the trainee had finished, Scott worked up the courage to say that the supervisor’s suggestion was incorrect.

“I had to tell her that even when you do punch in the ‘boy button,’ my breasts still set it off. So there’s no winning. I can never get through without a pat-down. She seemed surprised by this.”

Scott’s story is close to universal for flyers who are trans. No matter how well-intentioned a TSA officer might be, they are literally required to question the gender of everyone who walks through a body scanner: first discreetly, when they make the decision to scan someone as male or female, and then directly if the machine alarms.

The first time that Jessalynn Levine flew after coming out as a trans woman, she initially set off the body scanner. The TSO frowned and asked her to go through again. This time, the scan was clean.

TSA has played next to no role in the biggest counterterrorism stories of the past two decades.

A stylized x-ray illustration of a pile of security trays

“It’s okay,” he shouted to his colleague who was preparing for a pat-down. “I thought it was a man, but it was actually a woman.”

Levine found that specific encounter “gross but euphoric” — an experience that marginalized her and affirmed her at the same time. “It only happened because I was trans, but also, someone just loudly yelled that I was a woman in an airport and could tell just by looking at me.”

Still, it doesn’t make up for the extra scrutiny she must face every time she flies. 

“This is an absolute necessity for your machines to work?” she says.

Levine has a point. The TSA pitches its “gender-specific algorithms” as a benefit when, in fact, they actually mask the scanners’ obvious shortcomings. They can’t tell the difference between bra underwire and copper electrical wire, between a mass of flesh and a lump of plastic explosives or a bag of drugs. So the algorithms actually tell the scanner to ignore whole areas of the body — to assume, for example, that a “female” is supposed to have long hair and extra flesh and clothing around her chest but nothing protruding from her groin and vice versa for a “male.” 

This might hold true for most people but not for all, says Os Keyes, a researcher at the University of Washington who’s written extensively on the topic of automated gender recognition (AGR). 

“It is absolutely a design choice to assume that differences in embodiment are defined (both exclusively and uniformly) by gender, but they’re not. There are differences within genders, differences between genders, differences with respect to the cultural framings of race, the presence of disability, and so on.”

Even with the algorithms in place, the scanners aren’t perfect. Scott, for example, has made it through TSA without a pat-down before. 

“It was because I had tucked right,” she says, referring to the way she repositioned her genitals. “I had not done a clinical tuck with any binding tape or anything. I just got lucky that day.”

The scanners’ inaccuracies work in both directions, however. Another traveler named Monica (who asked that we only use her first name) gets routinely flagged by TSA simply because she looks androgynous.

“I’m pretty much a walking rectangle if I wear baggy clothes,” she says, laughing. “I have short hair. I’m usually in jeans and a T-shirt because that’s what’s comfortable. And every time I go through TSA, I get flagged.”

Since 2020, she’s flown six times and has been patted down three times. 

“It’s a badger point,” she says. “It’s a reminder that you’re ‘other,’ even if in your everyday life you don’t feel it.”

Through their imprecise algorithmic shorthand, AIT scanners can quickly process those who conform to mainstream gender norms. But those who don’t map neatly onto their expectations of male and female find themselves dreading each visit to the airport. Just as ethnic and religious prejudice affects people like Abdou and Ismail, gender prejudice affects trans travelers like Scott, Levine, and Monica. The only difference is that lazy people enforce the former, whereas lazy algorithms enforce the latter. 

The TSA receives only a few hundred complaints of gender-based harassment each year, although, according to ProPublica, the vast majority of those who experience it never file a complaint. Still, a truly fair alternative would require acknowledging the scanners’ inherent flaws — and that would mean subjecting every traveler to both a scan and a “sensitive area” pat down every time. (I can hear the howls of protest now.)

In March of this year, the TSA finally announced that it “is working with the manufacturer on an algorithm update” that will replace “the current, gender-based AIT system” while also improving “accuracy and efficiency.”

Maybe so. But Keyes considers this a marginal improvement. “The overarching security theater — the idea that we should be scrutinized in this way — will be continued.”

And that is the very idea that the TSA refuses to confront. It remains institutionally obsessed with “preventing another 9/11,” using that phrase like a reflex in press releases, Congressional hearings, and pretty much any attempt to justify its increasingly baroque policies. In the last 20 years, it has spent nearly $140 billion to 9/11-proof air travel.

But the reality is that TSA has played next to no role in the biggest counterterrorism stories of the past two decades. According to the think tank RAND, intelligence and security services manage to foil nearly two-thirds of terrorist plots in the planning stages. For example, British police and MI5 stopped a 2006 plot to bomb airliners traveling from the UK to the US. And a 2007 plot to blow up the fuel infrastructure at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York was stopped in the early planning stages by the FBI. They have been so successful at doing so that most terrorist plots don’t target the air transportation system anymore.

Those that do, meanwhile, have to contend with a much harder target. Between locked and hardened cockpit doors, the end of the “total compliance” policy toward hijacking, and the willingness of passengers to fight back, it is difficult to imagine how a suicide hijacker would succeed today. Hence the failure of Richard Reid (the “shoe bomber”) and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the “underwear bomber”). These two are the only semi-successful post-9/11 airborne terrorists on flights to or from the United States. And the TSA can’t even be blamed for failing to catch them: they boarded their aircraft in foreign airports where the TSA does not operate.

The TSA does run the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS), which sends armed undercover officers on international flights. But a 2018 audit found “vulnerabilities with FAMS’ contribution to international flight security” and recommended slashing its budget by almost half.

The truth is that although many commentators on 9/11 called the attacks “our Pearl Harbor,” a better comparison might be our Trojan Horse — a stratagem so successful, so devastating, and so infamous that it will never work again. It makes little sense for the TSA to organize itself so single-mindedly against an attack that may never come, a massive agency on the lookout for a big, wooden horse. 

This isn’t just a philosophical objection. Actuaries measure the cost-effectiveness of an intervention — say, a pharmaceutical drug or a safety device like a seat belt — with a metric called “cost per life saved.” This calculation tries to capture the total societal net resources spent in order to save one year of life. For example, mandatory seat belt laws cost $138; railway crossing gates cost $90,000; and inpatient intensive care at a hospital can cost up to $1 million per visit. As long as an intervention costs less than $10 million per life saved, government agencies are generally happy to back them.

A better comparison might be our Trojan Horse — a stratagem so successful, so devastating, and so infamous that it will never work again.

A stylized x-ray illustration of a scanning wand

The most generous independent estimates of the cost-effectiveness of the TSA’s airport security screening put the cost per life saved at around $15 million. And that makes two big assumptions: first, that the agency is both 100 percent effective and 100 percent responsible for stopping all terror attacks; and second, that it stops an attack on the scale of 9/11 about once a decade. Less optimistic assessments place the number at $667 million per life saved.

Meanwhile, the greatest threat to airport security — and to TSA employees themselves — comes less from people like Osama bin Laden and more from people like Timothy McVeigh. So-called “lone wolf” terrorists have in the last decade attacked military bases, nightclubs, stores, and peaceful protests. They often don’t have direct ties to organized terrorist groups and, instead of following a clearly defined ideology, prefer to mix and match from the vast buffet of hatreds and resentments one can easily find online. For many of them, law enforcement officers are the target.

On November 1st, 2013, a man entered the TSA checkpoint at LAX’s Terminal 3, walked straight up to Transportation Security Officer Gerardo Hernandez, pulled out a semi-automatic rifle from his duffel bag, and fired several times at point-blank range. The other TSOs at the checkpoint — all of whom were unarmed — scattered. The gunman walked into the “secure” area of the terminal, firing as he went.

Armed Los Angeles Airport Police officers arrived seven minutes after the gunman entered the airport. In that time, the gunman walked the entire length of Terminal 3, asking multiple terrified bystanders, “Are you TSA?” He shot two other TSOs, neither of them fatally, and then went back to the checkpoint and fired into Officer Hernandez’s body once again. Finally, police “strike teams” cornered him by the Hudson News near Gate 35. He was shot four times and taken into custody.

Gerardo Hernandez was the first — and, so far, only — TSO to die on the job. But others have been attacked with potentially lethal force. A man sprayed one TSO in the face with wasp killer and slashed a second with a machete at New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong International Airport in 2015. A Florida woman brandishing a knife and shouting “I know my rights” forced her way through a TSA checkpoint in Orlando in February of 2017. In 2019 at the Phoenix Sky Harbor airport, a man rushed the checkpoint and began punching TSOs at random; it took five of them to subdue him.

And all this was before the pandemic. Since March of 2020, there have been an average of five violent assaults on TSOs each month — almost twice as many as there were in 2017, even though passenger volumes have been down 30 percent since then. 

“We can no longer focus only on preventing the bad guys from getting into the secure area of an airport,” said TSA Administrator David Pekoske. “We must focus on both sides of the checkpoint.”

But so far, the TSA’s only concrete action has been to issue a meekly worded press release that “reminds passengers to remain calm and respectful at security checkpoints.”

Eventually, the disappointing, dangerous reality of the job becomes too much for many Transportation Security Officers. 

Cooper quit her TSA job in 2019. “The reason why I left is how we were treated,” she explains. “It was toxic.”

In fact, the whole experience put her off of law enforcement in general, at least for the time being. For now, she is “leaning into the content creation side of things.” Of course, her first viral TikTok was about the dead passenger she had to screen.

Fazle Hasnain had no such illusions. “The TSA is a good starter job,” he says, “but people get burned out very quickly.” He used his experience to transfer to another job within Homeland Security, in Citizenship and Immigration Services.  

Becker hit the wall in the summer of 2015. “After a difficult year in T3, the largest and busiest terminal at [O’Hare], I had had enough,” he recalls. “There were too many passengers and too few officers. On Tuesday afternoon, I told my manager to talk me down off of the ledge. On Thursday, I was gone.”

You can hear a similar kind of resigned frustration everywhere in the COVID-19 era, from doctors, nurses, grocers, delivery drivers, and even flight attendants. It’s the universal refrain of “essential workers,” who are required to stay on the job no matter what, even when they don’t have the pay, protections, and / or basic dignity to make that work sustainable. 

TSA employees were among the first members of this dubious category. When President George W. Bush signed the Homeland Security Act in 2002, he declared the job of every law enforcement officer working under the new Department of Homeland Security as “essential” and “unprecedented.” This justified his decision both to give the DHS extraordinary powers to securitize air travel and to exclude its employees from basic federal protections and work rules. 

He preempted any accusations of exploitation with a patriotic scolding. 

“You’re charged with being on the front line of protecting America,” he reminded them. “Make sure you get your job done.”

But what exactly is that job? Empirically, we know that the TSA does little to stop massive terror plots or even the occasional airport shooting. Instead, TSOs protect the flying public in lots of little ways — by stopping cases of human trafficking, for example, or confiscating firearms from people’s carry-on luggage. And that’s good! But it doesn’t justify the massive curtailing of individual liberties inside airports, the regular harassment of ethnic and religious minorities and gender nonconforming people, and the creation of one of the most vindictive and hostile workplaces in the federal government.

As for Bush’s first line about protecting America, I don’t really recognize the America that exists at a TSA checkpoint. It is overly paranoid, vindictive, and unaccountable to us as citizens. In fact, it mostly brings to mind Masha Gessen’s observation that “resignation was the defining condition of Soviet life.” At airport security, I, too, feel a keen sense of despair and helplessness, and I can only pray that the gaze of the administrative state passes over me without notice. 

Not everyone is so lucky.

“I never know when I’ll get someone who really wants to ruin my day, and they have complete authority to do so,” says Victoria Scott. “I have trans friends who just don’t fly because they’re too scared. I can’t blame them.”

If there’s hope for a better TSA, it comes from forcing those within the system to change their minds. 

A few years ago, Rami Ismail was recognized by a hardcore indie gamer who also happened to be the TSO assigned to perform additional screening at the checkpoint that day. 

“Oh my god,” he told Ismail. “I’m so sorry, but I’m going to have to random check you.”

As he had done after previous bad airport security experiences, Ismail tweeted about the encounter. He was especially motivated to do so because he knew that the TSO would see his tweet. 

“I hope for a moment he knew he was the bad guy there,” says Ismail in retrospect. “Because if it’s people you don’t care about, they’re just numbers. But he had to live with it, and maybe it changed his mind.”

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