November 3, 2013

An Attack That Was Waiting to Happen: Guns and the TSA, in Pictures

The image of the terminal at LAX, showing the recently fired rifle with its clip on the floor — along with the unattended belongings, the litter, and, of course, the swarm of police — disrupts the carefully manufactured sense of procedure choreographed by airport architects, airport authorities, airlines, and, especially, the TSA. It is disruptive because its “the visual smoking gun” of an event designed never to happen in an airport: a gun crime.

The news that TSA agents were shot and one was killed on Friday by a shooter targeting their members was certainly shocking. Any public shooting in an unexpected place leads to immediate questioning and concern. There was also an instant outpouring of emotion along with expressions of sympathy. However, the TSA is a deeply detested organization. In my own research on anti-TSA rhetoric, for example, one thing I found was a great deal of fear over the amount of contact the TSA has with the bodies of passengers. I found a general level of paranoia among the most strident and violent TSA detractors and that paranoid fear leads to a desire to dominate the bodies of the TSA in return.Given the presence of such violent rhetoric (such as explicit desires to rape, beat, and kill TSA agents in online discourse), it should be no surprise that mere hours after the shooting, individuals were already suggesting the TSA “deserved it” or that the carnage justified eliminating the agency. Here are a few examples:

Now certainly many people who make grotesque and violent comments towards the TSA would never act on it. However, Friday’s event make it clear that the presence of violent anti-TSA attitudes does eventually manifest itself in force.

While the shooting was unique, the discovery of firearms at the airport has become increasingly common. Confiscating guns brought by passengers to airports has become a staple of the TSA’s routine. The TSA has long justified its presence in airports as a last line of defense against terrorists who would threaten air travel, yet that mission exists in the absence of evidence the TSA has foiled any plots. (Often TSA officials claim the need for secrecy takes precedence over disclosure).  They do, however, routinely inform the public about guns, knives, and other dangerous objects they confiscate at checkpoints. Recently, those efforts entered a primarily visual and public realm: Instagram. In the montage below, you can see a sample of the TSA’s feed, featuring an assortment of weapons that passengers attempted to bring through checkpoints.

Comparing the news photo of the gun on the floor at LAX with the images of guns provided by TSA on Instagram, the disconnect is naturally disconcerting. The pictures in TSA’s Instagram feed show weapons that have been rendered inert. They are presented without any agent present, placed on a table away from any human hands. Each weapon is presented in a clinical fashion, without the implication that it has endangered anyone. Additionally, they are presented with a minimal amount of information: simply where the firearm was found along with a link to see more. While the LAX photo provides context that allows the weapon and its history to include its immediate malice, these weapons — prohibited and inherently threatening as they are — are photographed in a way that is not only nonthreatening, but even artistic.

According to my research, highlighting what they find but eliminating any other context only serves to undermine the TSA’s public face. TSA purports to “increase public transparency” but when that information is redacted it has shown to create insecurity and even paranoia among its detractors. This is true with these photos as well. Failing to present these firearms as the threats to air travel they may be only emboldens the the critics the TSA would hope to pacify.

This vagueness surrounding the Instagram visuals is especially problematic because the number of weapons discovered in airports is on the rise.  In the immediate aftermath of the shooting of TSA agents at LAX, CNN reported the seizure of “1,556 guns in 2012, nearly double the 803 guns confiscated in 2007….” If the increase in firearms discovered at airport checkpoints represents an increased burden for TSA, what the statistics don’t address is the parallel increase in anti-TSA sentiment. While the use of a weapon against a TSA agent is obviously rare (Gerardo I. Hernandez is the first agent to die in the line of duty) both the photo of the scene at LAX and the images on TSA’s Instagram feed emphasize the social, political, and now the actual lethality involved in how we protect our airports.

Many TSA detractors call for the abolition of the agency and the privatization of airport security without malice or violent rhetoric. It was readily apparent immediately after the shooting of TSA agents, however, that a small persistent minority is satisfied to revel in the mayhem and the deaths. In my dissertation (conducted between May 2011 and August 2013), I observed a trend in violent rhetoric toward the TSA demonstrated in the confluence of antigovernment railing, homophobic fantasies, racist and violent rhetoric. Initial details about the shooter suggest some of these themes in the note he carried with him. If it’s too early to draw conclusions about the shooter, his psychology, or his motives, however, I do want to note that such threats (even as jokes) are not expressed in a vacuum nor do they all remain idle.

We must think about how we want our airports to be secured. These images, and the attitudes and actions underscore the critical need for a constructive debate. The presence of violent rhetoric towards TSA employees, the increasing presence of firearms in airports (menacing or not), and the stress that surrounds airport security have created a cauldron of danger for TSA employees on the frontline.

— George F. McHendry, Jr. | @acaguy

George F. McHendry, Jr. is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Creighton University. His research currently focuses on airport security and the relationship between the public and the Transportation Security Administration.

(screenshot 1: FOX 11 caption: Sweep: Police officers on the scene at LAX next to a gun which is believed to be the rifle the gunman used. One person has been confirmed dead in the shooting. montage and TSA photos: Instagram/TSA.)

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George F. McHendry Jr.
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