Today's TSA: Even Petty Power Corrupts. Perhaps ESPECIALLY Petty Power.

Fear not, America: in a world where so many wish you ill, the Transportation Security Administration is still vigilant against your greatest foe: Americans who have survived cancer.

Via Letters to my Country and Amy Alkon (who, you might recall, had her own recent run-in with the TSA), I encountered this rage-inducing story by Lori Dorn:

Yesterday I went through the imaging scanner at JFK Terminal 4 for my Virgin America flight to San Francisco. Evidently they found something, because after the scan, I was asked to step aside to have my breast area examined. I explained to the agent that I was a breast cancer patient and had a bilateral mastectomy in April and had tissue expanders put in to make way for reconstruction at a later date.

I told her that I was not comfortable with having my breasts touched and that I had a card in my wallet that explains the type of expanders, serial numbers and my doctor’s information (pictured) and asked to retrieve it. This request was denied. Instead, she called over a female supervisor who told me the exam had to take place. I was again told that I could not retrieve the card and needed to submit to a physical exam in order to be cleared. She then said, “And if we don’t clear you, you don’t fly” loud enough for other passengers to hear. And they did. And they stared at the bald woman being yelled at by a TSA Supervisor.

I'm sure the TSA will explain why it was necessary to grope a cancer patient in public, just as soon as their official blogger finishes bragging about how the TSA's explosive detection technology helps them interdict smuggled fish.

This is, by far, not the first time we've heard that the TSA acts in an inhuman fashion to people with illnesses and disabilities. We've seen wanton treatment of people with urostomy and colostomy bags, the sick torment of the mentally disabled, and the demands that cancer survivors remove prosthetic breasts. Throughout, for the most part, the media remains the TSA's compliant fluffers. So, though what happened to Lori Dorn is sick and infuriating, it is not new.

One of the questions I've been asking here is why do we let this happen? But there's another apt question: these TSA agents are human beings, of a sort, so why do they act this way? Is there something about recruiting on pizza boxes that attracts a statistically unlikely cluster of sociopaths?

I think the answer is an old one and a simple one, congruent with one of the main themes seen on this blog: power corrupts. If you confer upon a man or woman the power to inflict tyrannies and indignities upon his or her fellow citizens, he or she will slowly grow to hate those fellow citizens, feel justified in mistreating them, and increasingly inflict the indignities with aggression and contempt.

Stanford University has offered two very apt studies, one old and one new. First, there's Philip Zimbardo's chilling and classic prison experiment, which illustrated how ordinary college students — people who on a more typical day would be thinking about weed and sex and avoiding work, people who were probably more countercultural than authoritarian — were transformed by being given even temporary power over others as mock prison guards. And now, more recently, a joint study by Stanford, USC, and Northwestern shows how petty power corrupts:

In a new study, researchers at USC, Stanford Graduate School of Business, and the Kellogg School of Management have found that individuals in roles that possess power but lack status have a tendency to engage in activities that demean others. According to the study, "The Destructive Nature of Power Without Status," the combination of some authority and little perceived status can be a toxic combination.

The research, forthcoming in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, is "based on the notions that (a) low status is threatening and aversive, and (b) power frees people to act on their internal states and feelings."

(Thanks to Greg Lukianoff for the pointer to that study.)

This study could have been written explicitly about the TSA. TSA agents are poorly paid, work in nasty conditions, and have little status. Yet they have, within their petty fiefdoms, tremendous power to humiliate and demean. And God, do they ever use it.

The fact that this is a recognized psychological phenomenon explains, but does not excuse, any more than it excuses police abuse and bureaucratic indifference. Nor does it excuse the leaders of the TSA and the Department of Homeland security, who have decreed a feckless facade of security theater that is calculated to lead to this result, all in the name of promoting unquestioning compliance.

What are you going to do? Are you going to retell these stories on social media and forums and blogs? Are you going to make it clear, when asked, that you don't accept the security state's excuses at face value? Are you going to write your representatives?

Are you going to stand up? Or is it really no big deal that a petty authority groped and humiliated a cancer survivor in public, purportedly for your safety?

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. says

    My friend, evolutionary psychologist Catherine Salmon, just posted an interesting piece on her Psych Today blog about the possible psychological reasons behind TSA bullying:

    By the way, on a "speaking up" note, I've had my op-ed urging people to be civilly disobedient in the face of TSA rights grabs rejected by every mainstream media outlet I've sent it to. I'm trying to get it picked up by an outlet that will get it the most viewings by ordinary Americans. Still pursuing that, but kicking myself for my naivete in thinking that the NYT, LAT, would ever publish such a thing. (And I'm a newspaper columnist in a whole bunch of papers — not writing in crayon from prison, and I've had the piece vetted by three crack editor friends and my wonderful First Amendment lawyer, Marc J. Randazza, who sticks out both middle fingers while being groped, in hopes of showing those earning a living violating our rights the respect they DESERVE.)

  2. C. S. P. Schofield says

    I suspect that there is another factor at work here; the TSA goons are spectacularly irrelevant to flight safety, and the even slightly intelligent ones probably know it. While a criminal mastermind would probably have little trouble sneaking a bomb onto an airliner, the terrorist planners frankly genius level techno-geeks. The 9/11 attacks, and all the airplane targeted efforts that I've read of since, could have/have been thwarted by passenger action. The next bunch of camel pesterers that attempts to take over a plane with box cutters is going to end up stuffed in the overhead luggage compartment in somewhat use condition.

    Moreover, if you wanted to be realistic about things, you could say "OK, we're racially profiling until further notice. Sorry, we're a little tense.", and you could let reliable people (like the Pilots, and yes I know that was supposedly done, but if you look at how it was implemented …. not so much) carry guns for defense on airliners.

    The TSA people have to know that they are useless. And that HAS to be galling.

  3. perlhaqr says

    in hopes of showing those earning a living violating our rights the respect they DESERVE.

    Heh. Yeah, I saw that sign at the airport last time I flew too. I'd have liked to have shown the TSA agents the respect they deserved, but I didn't need to pee at the time.

  4. C. S. P. Schofield says


    I didn't say that racial profiling would be a Good Thing, I said it would have a desirable effect; it would actually accomplish something useful. In my opinion, in light of what I seriously think will happen to terrorists attempting to take over a flight from now on, the costs wouldn't be matched by the benefits, but it would do more to make flight safe than the petty functionaries we are currently allowing to grope the citizenry.

  5. says

    This study could have been written explicitly about the TSA. TSA agents are poorly paid, work in nasty conditions, and have little status. Yet they have, within their petty fiefdoms, tremendous power to humiliate and demean. And God, do they ever use it.

    This kind of thing is instantly familiar to any enlisted guy: the service is chock full of little men who let a stripe go to their head.

    Are you going to stand up?

    And do what?

    The government is going to blow off letters. And social media.

    The government is not going to just disband TSA or tame their groping in any other way than perfunctory. TSA is a drug that the government likes: power and plenty of it. TSA is a symptom of a bigger problem with this government.

    I reckon it would take massive 1960s style civil rights protests to change TSA.

    Good luck finding people to donate time for that cause.

  6. says

    Actually, an issue with the SPE is that the wording used in the recruiting ad Zimbardo put out may well have attracted people specifically who WERE high on authoritarian and abusive personality traits. Seems if you specify your setting, the folks who'd kind of like to have that kind of power- or, more interestingly, think that someone having nominal power really does give them a right to abuse even if they're on the nasty end of the stick- turn out.

    That power/status study is an interesting one. It rings a bell from what I know of primates- monkeys that are low on the status ladder can be astoundingly nasty to those just a rung or two lower, just because they can. High-status apes and monkeys usually have too much invested in alliances to be pointlessly abusive.

  7. says

    Per a TSA supervisor in BOS you are not allowed to say that what the TSA agents are doing constitutes assault. Apparently they "shouldn't have to take that."

  8. Laura K says

    I find this is one of so many issues where I have strong opinions–mostly involving the TSA and their rightful place in Hell–but no solutions. Complaining letters and petitions will probably not force the government to shut down or clean up the TSA. So what can we actually do?

  9. Mad Rocket Scientist says

    I too fear that the is wholly uninterested in changing things, and they have the media on their side, and the media is able to track down the one or two people in an airport who think the TSA is just fine, or at least a necessary evil. So when new complaints surface, and the media does a story, they'll always have a 10 second soundbite of someone cheerleading for the TSA.

  10. Erica says

    The ultimate troll thing is to bring up the holocaust in response to any event, but it just saddens me that similar things have happened in the past – with people who have no power granted just a little tiny bit of power and using it to the extreme – and no one has learned anything from it. There's a meme with Professor Farnsworth noting that he doesn't want to live on this planet anymore and every time I read a TSA article, I want to stamp it with that meme.

    But… where can we go where this isn't happening?

  11. Rich Rostrom says

    Labrat: very interesting monkey study.

    It squares with an opinion that i have read elsewhere: that it is officials with just a little authority who turn into petty dictators and demand exaggerated deference.

  12. says

    “So what can we actually do?”

    Vote for Ron Paul?

    Gary Johnson has a better chance at connecting with non-Libertarians.

    Paul is .. your crazy uncle who makes sense but .. he's crazy. And old.

    Either in a pinch. GOP has lost my vote if Petty/Romney/Cain get the nod.

  13. Laura K says

    Brandon, the only use I have seen for Ron Paul is as a toilet brush for someone tall enough to weild him by the ankles.

  14. silvermine says

    I object to the idea that I deserve to be groped because I'm not old, ill, or a cancer survivor. NO ONE should be assaulted just to fly a plane. Sorry, but this is one giant freaking violation of the 4th amendment. Look, I know that people want to use these cases to make a change, but I think it backfires. It says that in these SPECIAL cases it's wrong. But that implies that otherwise, if you're healthy, young, walking, intact, etc. it's okay to grope you. NO.

  15. says

    This is what happens when you insist the government take responsibility for your safety. You want protection from terror, you invite terror from another source. We made this bed, now we are forced to lie in it.

  16. Texas Hillsurfer says

    I'd like to comment on the other comments on racial profiling, and only that. If we rely on race to determine who may or may not be a terrorist, the terrorists will simply recruit more actors who are not of that race, as has been done in the past. In other words, regardless of how effective or ineffective the current security tactics may be, relying on race to narrow the field of candidates may not be racist, but it is dangerously stupid.

  17. C. S. P. Schofield says


    Awww, diddums. Gods forbid we should apply nasty names to a demographic of barbarian swine who attack us. We wouldn't want them to think we're RUDE.

  18. Patrick says

    C. S. P. Schofeld:

    "Camel Pesterers" is not too different from "Spearchuckers". If a non-entity like, say, Jim Hall referred to camel pesterers or spearchuckers around here, I'd ban him without a second thought.

    You've commented here for some time however, so I'm having a second thought. Kindly reflect on your rhetoric, and imagine how that would look to an Arabic member of our readership. We have a few.

    If you agree, after calm reflection following what I'm sure may feel like an unpleasant warning, you might want to say so.

    You're better than that.