Many years ago, an elected official in Alabama taught me a lesson in how to deal with critics. “If the postman paid attention to every barking dog on his route, he’d never deliver the mail,” he said. The message was clear – don’t worry about those small, yappy mongrels who pose no risk to your mission. Rather, save your energy for the ones who can really harm you.
That old canard came to mind this week as I read TSA’s response to the outlandish claims made by Judicial Watch about TSA screeners. It made me wonder if TSA was really taking seriously assertions by Judicial Watch, gleaned from documents that TSA provided under the Freedom of Information Act, that TSA screeners were engaged in improper behavior while performing secondary screening procedures.
The documents make clear that several instances of improper behavior occurred, one of the most recent being a particularly despicable occurrence at Denver International Airport. And when the actions of the two screeners involved there came to TSA’s attention, it acted swiftly and effectively to address the problem.
Rather than commend TSA leadership for its prompt action to address a nasty situation, Judicial Watch and others of its ilk frequently draw sweeping conclusions and paint with broad brushes to create the (false) impression that most, if not all, TSA screeners are insensitive “perverts,” as one publication printed.
I know the truth is otherwise. Most, if not all, TSA screeners are conscientious, careful, and committed to making travel safe and secure. They respect the privacy of others. They respect the differing medical and physical conditions that passengers present to them at screening checkpoints. They talk with and engage the passengers, whom they view as their “customers,” and they take seriously the very real threats that terrorist organizations have asserted against the aviation system.
At no time and in no place should boorish, unprofessional behavior be tolerated, and TSA leadership preaches that message every chance it gets. Maybe that is why they felt the need to respond to what they saw as Judicial Watch’s broadside attack on their entire workforce.
Perhaps they also saw something else – a larger issue – involved here. There is no doubt in my mind that the current environment in our country has never been as bad (at least in my lifetime) for public trust in law enforcement officers. Although completely unrelated to each other in cause, the riots in Baltimore and Ferguson, the police shootings in South Carolina and New York, and the killing of a U.S. Marshal in West Virginia have helped create a public narrative that says law enforcement officers are fair game.
In some communities, they are just not trusted. In others, they are viewed as enemies of freedom. Still in others, they are viewed as reckless bullies. Of course, this narrative will always find some audience, especially in the fragmented world of the fringe Internet media outlets. But saying bad things about a police officer multiple times doesn’t make it true, and that is a problem for law enforcement agencies like TSA.
When the Rolling Stone article came out alleging campus sexual assaults at fraternity parties, many people were ready to disband college fraternities altogether and fire the university president. It was only after several months of investigation that the truth came out – that the story had been made up and the broadside assault on the culture of tolerance of sexual abuse was non-existent. But the damage to reputation had been done, and it will take many years before the stench of that initial report goes away.
Is Judicial Watch engaged in Rolling Stone-like tactics? No, I don’t think so. But the results on the target of their reports seem quite similar to me. In both instances, bad behavior by a few is extrapolated into the inference that others are doing similarly bad things but just haven’t been caught, yet.
If my assessment is correct, and I’m open to contrary opinions, then it is an insidious message to be sure. Maybe this truly is one of those “barking dogs” that should receive attention. Then again, it may only serve to embolden a yappy pooch who thrives on attention from the bigger dogs in the neighborhood.
As for me, every time I go through a TSA checkpoint, I thank the screeners for their service. They have a difficult job. I appreciate their effort to ensure that nothing bad happens on my flight. There are far more things they do right than those that are wrong, and every management course I’ve ever taken says we should reward good behavior more often than we do because it encourages more good behavior.
In that vein, I applaud TSA’s Acting Administrator, Mel Carraway, for his response to the Judicial Watch allegations. I just wish it had not been necessary in the first place.