"TSA and Pigs"
How -- and why -- the left and right united to turn TSA agents into public enemy number one.
On Friday morning, 23-year-old Paul Ciancia walked into Terminal 3 of the Los Angeles LAX airport, pulled a Smith & Wesson AR-15 semi-automatic rifle from a duffel bag and started shooting his way through a security checkpoint. He specifically targeted TSA agents, killing one screener and wounding three other people before an airport cop took him down with a shot to the face.
At first police suspected that the shooter was a disgruntled former TSA employee. But a different picture emerged a few hours later: Ciancia was an anti-government conspiracy nut who came to LAX specifically to kill TSA agents.
One witness said she looked directly into Ciancia's eyes and heard him "curse the TSA." Several FBI sources told reporters that Ciancia carried a rambling racist and homophobic note that touched on "fiat currency" and the New World Order, denounced TSA oppression and described himself as a "pissed-off patriot" who "wanted to kill TSA and pigs" to "instill fear" into their "traitorous minds."
While details about the LAX shooter continue to emerge, it has become clear that Paul Ciancia is a mentally unstable individual who had come under the sway of some very toxic anti-government conspiracy theories. But one question remains: Why did he focus his hatred on the TSA? Out of all the possible federal agencies to choose from, what convinced him that airport screeners - who don't have arrest powers and aren't allowed to carry weapons - are the root of all government evil, and deserve to be hunted down and killed like animals?
In a way, it was just a matter of time before something like this happened. For the past three years, a vicious PR campaign has demonized and dehumanized TSA screeners. Launched by the libertarian-right, this smear offensive sought to equate the TSA in the public mind with the worst people imaginable: Nazis, rapists, gropers, child molesters and sadistic enforcers of a police state.
The right-wing echo chamber would routinely trot out violent tropes and racist and homophobic language describing the TSA as Obama's "private army" and calling on liberty-loving Americans "to do something" to stop this "bureaucratic monster."
But while this anti-TSA campaign was created by the libertarian-right, it was enabled and strengthened by the left. Some of the most prominent progressive and leftie bloggers and journalists took an active part in the TSA media witch-hunt. They joined the right in labeling the TSA as America's enemy within, unaware that underneath the big-brother rhetoric and feigned right-wing concern about civil liberties, the anti-TSA campaign was really a union-busting operation with a specific set of political goals: to prevent the TSA from unionizing, to privatize airport security and to introduce Israeli-style racial profiling into the airport-screening process.
Progressives like to smugly ridicule dumb red-state voters who go against their own interests by joining political movements and by voting in politicians who end up screwing them. But as smug as they are, progressives have shown themselves no better. By joining the anti-TSA hysteria, they became unwitting tools in a campaign that promoted everything progressives are supposed to be against: demonizing workers, busting unions, privatizing government services, replacing unionized government employees with exploited minimum-wage-slaves and enriching corporate security contractors.
How did this happen? How did the left get duped into joining an anti-labor and pro-privatization campaign? To understand that, you have to go back to 2010.
That year, on November 12, the Federal Labor Relations Board issued a surprise ruling granting TSA's 50,000 employees the right to unionize. The decision was a major victory — the culmination of a brutal decade-long struggle for collective bargaining — and paved the way for the largest unionization in decades.
But rank-and-file TSA employees didn't get much of a chance to celebrate. The very next day, an anti-TSA campaign exploded on a national level and proceeded to monopolize the news cycle for weeks on end.
In its opening stages, the PR campaign was driven by a grand alliance of right-wing media outlets, Koch-funded advocacy groups, libertarian operatives, warmongering neocons, neo-Confederates and Christian homophobes.
They seized on the TSA's new full-body scanners and "enhanced" pat-down procedures to portray TSA screeners as the biggest threat to liberty and freedom in the history of the United States. It began with the Drudge Report publishing and promoting the now-famous "Don't Touch My Junk" video, which was recorded by John Tyner, a libertarian activist and a Bircher supporter who just so happened to be a military-intelligence contractor working for a company that makes drone and NSA spy satellite components.
And while Matt Drudge continued to push out fake stories of TSA agents strip-searching children, grabbing crotches and groping nuns, cable news networks scrambled to interview other "ordinary Americans" who had experienced abuse and police-state repression at the hands of the TSA.
A FreedomWorks employee claimed she had been molested by TSA agents, Fox News host Geraldo Rivera said he "got manually raped by a guy" at a TSA checkpoint, while Hannity interviewed an Ohio woman who was "sexually assaulted by a TSA worker during a pat down." Evangelical homophobes got into the mix, accusing the TSA of pursuing a "homosexual agenda” to turn innocent American children into queers by groping and scanning them at the gate.
Glenn Beck devoted entire shows to highlighting fake TSA abuse stories and warning that the TSA was just the beginning of a totalitarian plot to crush political dissent and turn American into USSA.
Meanwhile, Alex Jones turned his InfoWars video show into a TSA conspiracy content mill that routinely "uncovered" diabolical plots involving the TSA, President Obama and his afro-commie conspirators. In one such plot, InfoWars warned that President Obama and Jesse Jackson were planning to use armed TSA agents to "occupy" cities across America, starting with Chicago:
For the record, the TSA is Obama’s so-called “civilian national security force.” They are the new non-military, non-sworn “army” that’s slated to occupy U.S. cities.
This was the plan all along, of course: Disarm the citizens then wait for violence to get so bad that the public screams for the government to intervene. The TSA is ready to step in with its army of perverts, child molesters, drug dealers, thieves and child porn distributors — yes, these are precisely the kind of people who work for the TSA. Now Jesse Jackson apparently wants to put guns in their hands and give them “authority” over the disarmed citizens.
…Bottom line? What Jesse Jackson is calling for is the rise of an armed domestic security force like Hitler’s Brownshirts.
Even a warmongering zombie like Charles Krauthammer abandoned his usual pro-torture, pro-war op-ed writing to stand against the tyrannical gropers at the TSA: "Don’t touch my junk is the anthem of the modern man…This time you have gone too far, Big Bro‘. The sleeping giant awakes. Take my shoes, remove my belt, waste my time and try my patience. But don’t touch my junk."
It was like the Second American Revolution— a purely astroturf revolution this time, waged without the support of most Americans. Despite the insane anti-TSA hysteria piped out by the right-wing echo chamber, polls showed people overwhelmingly supported the new TSA procedures. One CBS poll put the number at 82 percent.
In the days that followed, some of the most prominent progressive journalists, bloggers and media outlets flocked to join the anti-TSA smear circus, adopting the same toxic right-wing lingo that dehumanized TSA employees and invited violence.
Glenn Greenwald was perhaps the earliest and most prominent progressive-leaning blogger to take up the TSA cause. He referred to TSA agents as government thugs, described airport pat-downs as "extremism” and went on a full McCarthyite rant declaring that not standing up against TSA screeners was equivalent to "accepting in the name of Fear that you must suffer indignities, humiliations and always-increasing loss of liberties at the hands of unchallengeable functionaries of the state.”
Greenwald attacked people who dared criticize the TSA-outrage manufactured by the libertarian-right, smearing them as subservient Obamabots and squishy fascists.
Greenwald’s popularity and influence helped drive leftie and prog outrage at fake TSA abuses, but he wasn't the only one flogging this cause.
The "progressive" blog FireDogLake was perhaps the biggest and loudest leftie media outlet to promote the anti-TSA crusade. The site even launched a "Petition to Investigate the TSA,” adopting right-wing lingo in calling the agency’s pat down procedures "aggressive groping” and getting "sexually assaulted by a government official.” FireDogLake blogger Marcy Wheeler frequently referred to TSA checkpoints procedures as "rape” and "groping.” In December 2010, she warned her readers that anywhere from a quarter-million to 1 million people "had their genitalia groped by a stranger working for the government" in a single week, and the Obama administration simply didn't care. "That sort of seems like a lot of junk-touching in just one week.”
Two years later, Wheeler was comparing TSA workers to rapists, Tweeting out: "Rape is not about sexual enjoyment. It's about power. So is this TSA stuff.”
Naomi Wolf took to her blog on the Huffington Post to describe her "sex life with the TSA" and "highly eroticized” pat-downs, and saw TSA screeners as agents of a totalitarian dystopian state that keeps the entire world in terror: "drones in the skies, war all over the world, and TSA gropedowns in every bus and train," she wrote.
Hacker activist Jacob Appelbaum bought into the outrage too, promoting the same articles as anti-semitic Illuminati conspiracy theorist David Icke and Tweeting: "The TSA Gestapo Empire, like the future, is already here. It's just not evenly distributed. (yet.)"
Even legendary Nation editor, Tom Engelhardt fell for the anti-TSA trap. He saw the TSA as an extension of the creeping "national security state,” a totalitarian society where "safety” means "your humiliation, your degradation.” He also praised right-wingers agitating against the TSA: "Now, for the first time in years, the oppressiveness of a national security state bent on locking down American life has actually gotten to some Americans...the idea that air travel may now mean a choice between a spritz of radiation and a sorta naked snapshot or—thrilling option B—having some overworked, over-aggressive TSA agent grope you has caused outrage…"
Without a doubt, there was a lot to criticize about the TSA's full-body scanners and invasive pat-down procedures, which are offensive and intrusive. Criticism of the TSA was not only valid, but also necessary. But there was a huge distance between criticizing TSA policy and the vicious smearing of poorly paid federal employees as "rapists" and "fascists," especially when these employees were in the middle of a historic unionization drive.
All this was lost on most progressives, who rushed in to prove that they also care about civil liberties and won't take it from "the Man" just because they're squishy progs. The few people who remained vocally skeptical of the TSA lynch mob were either Democratic Party operatives, or labor organizers and journalists, who understood too well what the demonization campaign was about: union-bashing.
No one else found it strange that the anti-TSA civil liberties cause had been taken up by a bunch of right-wing warmongers, anti-civil rights crusaders and waterboarding-cheerleaders like Rick Perry, Glenn Beck, Wall Street Journal's Koch groupie John Fund, and Utah’s Tea Party Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who had just the year before come back from a fact-finding mission to Guantanamo Bay and declared that conditions there resembled an all-inclusive Caribbean resort. Chaffetz was surprised that "[detainees] have access to hundreds of movies such as Oceans 13, Liar Liar, and Finding Nemo" and can choose from a wide selection of flavored force-feeding goo: "We go to great lengths to see that their nutritional needs are met, even offering a variety of flavored liquid nutrients to detainees participating in hunger strikes.”
Also, no one seemed to mind that the people screaming loudest against abuse wanted to replace the TSA screeners with private security firms and Israeli-style racial profiling, and argued that the free-market would prevent private companies from infringing the civil liberties of the American people. And none of these progressives seemed to care that this vicious demonization campaign could have serious real-world consequences for the agency's 50,000 employees.
The TSA was created in the months after 9/11 with wide public support and a mandate to improve airport security. Until then, airport screening was handled by private security firms, which paid minimum wage, provided inadequate training, cut corners and generally did everything to squeeze profits out of their lucrative government contracts. But after these security contractors spectacularly failed to stop the 9/11 hijackers, the American public demanded better security and got it in the form of federal TSA screeners, signed into law by President George W. Bush himself.
But all was not well in the land of the TSA. Because the GOP successfully managed to block TSA unionization attempts for nearly a decade, the TSA remained plagued by many of the same problems as the private contractors the agency was supposed to replace.
TSA employees had little recourse against powerful TSA management. Abuse and intimidation flourished in an environment where workers lacked the basic protections and rights afforded to other federal employees. TSA management was flooded with reports and complaints of sexual harassment, illegal firings, discrimination, nepotism and rampant bullying by superiors. The agency suffered from the lowest morale and highest turnover rates among federal agencies, and TSA workers had a shocking injury rate: seven times higher than that of miners.
Conditions at the TSA were so bad that in 2008, Bush’s last year in office, Department of Homeland Security Inspector General published a report that warned it was negatively impacting airport security.
There was hope that conditions would improve after TSA workers voted to unionize in 2011. But the vicious anti-TSA campaign quickly kneecapped their union's negotiation powers and made it impossible for the union to stand up to management and demand better treatment.
"Many TSA union leaders say that it has been very difficult to draw attention to the refusal of TSA to bargain a fair contract with workers because of media outlets' negative portrayal of TSA search procedures," reported Mike Elk (a sometime NSFWCORP contributor) in “In These Times” in 2012.
He pointed out that even after unionizing, TSA agents remained among the lowest paid federal employees and still faced routine abuse and sexual discrimination, with women frequently forced into lower paid TSA job categories. In short: the anti-TSA union-bashing op. was a success.
On top of crushing the TSA's bargaining power, the relentless smear campaign against the agency fostered an increasingly violent and dangerous work environment. Passengers routinely lashed out at TSA screeners, with verbal abuse sometimes turning into physical violence. Aviation blogger Steven Frischling asked TSA screeners to share their workplace experiences a week into the anti-TSA campaign in November 2010, and their responses were shocking. Here are a just a few:
“Molester, pervert, disgusting, an embarrassment, creep. These are all words I have heard today at work describing me, said in my presence as I patted passengers down. These comments are painful and demoralizing, one day is bad enough, but I have to come back tomorrow, the next day and the day after that to keep hearing these comments. If something doesn’t change in the next two weeks I don’t know how much longer I can withstand this taunting. I go home and I cry. I am serving my country, I should not have to go home and cry after a day of honorably serving my country.”
“I served a tour in Afghanistan followed by a tour in Iraq. I have been hardened by war and in the past week I am slowly being broken by the constant diatribe of hateful comments being lobbed at me. While many just see a uniform with gloves feeling them for concealed items I am a person, I am a person who has feelings. I am a person who has served this country. I am a person who wants to continue serving his country. The constant run of hateful comments while I perform my job will break me down faster and harder than anything I encountered while in combat in the Army.”
“Do people know what a Nazi is? One can’t describe me as a Nazi because I am following a security procedure…designed to find prohibited items on a passenger’s body. A Nazi is someone with hatred and ignorance in their hearts, a person who carried out actions of execution and extermination of those based on their religion, origins or sexual preferences. I work to make travel safer, even if I do not agree with the current security procedures. Furthermore, I am Jewish and a TSA Transportation Security Officer, an American Patriot and to call me a Nazi is an offense beyond all other offenses.”That abuse continued to grow. "TSA employees told ‘In These Times’ that on a daily basis, workers are shouted at and have obscenities hurled at them by airline passengers upset for following TSA search procedures. Several workers complained that on several occasions airline passengers had physically assaulted TSA workers, but the passengers were allowed to board flights because TSA screeners are unable to arrest passengers who assault them," wrote Mike Elk in 2012.
With all the venom the media was hurling their way, TSA screeners felt increasingly uneasy, worrying that it was just a matter of time before some unstable dupe took the smears literally and started targeting agents for assassination.
Without a doubt, the anti-TSA campaign made the TSA a more dangerous place to work. But campaigners like Radley Balko mocked TSA safety concerns. Formerly a Cato Institute tobacco lobbyist and now a crusader against police militarization at the HuffingtonPost, Balko has been agitating against the TSA as far back as 2008, when he published a Fox News column asking President Obama not to let the TSA unionize because "Security from terror attacks should not be a federal jobs program. You need the authority to fire underperforming screeners quickly and effortlessly.”
In 2012, he laughed at TSA screeners, calling their job safe and easy. He Tweeted:
"LOLZ. Mike Elk wants to give TSA agents arrest powers b/c job is dangerous. Has a TSA agent ever died b/c of the job?"The answer: not yet.
When Jared Laughner shot Arizona Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, leaving six people dead and and over a dozen injured, there was widespread outrage at and condemnation of the increasingly vitriolic rhetoric pumped out by the Republican right against its opponents. Lefties and progressives believed that this kind of political agitation, which often explicitly called for violent action, had directly motivated the shooting.
People were shocked to learn that Sarah Palin's PAC had produced a graphic that put Congresswoman Giffords in the crosshairs for her support Obama's healthcare bill, which Sarah Palin promoted by Tweeting: "Don't retreat, instead - RELOAD!"
But so far the left has been strangely silent about the violent right-wing rhetoric and conspiracy-mongering that inspired the TSA shooting at LAX. I guess that isn't very surprising, considering the left helped enable it.