Following a terrorist attack in Paris, an airliner bombing in the Middle East, and threats by ISIS to take its battle to the American homeland, it may not be the best time to cut back on airport security.
But controversial brain scientist Peter Steinmetz and some friends held signs and distributed literature at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport blasting the Transportation Security Administration for what they see as invasive and inefficient security procedures.
Last week marked the 14th anniversary of the formation of the TSA, an organization the activists believe actually makes security worse.
Steinmetz could almost be considered a hazard to airport security himself, considering his July 25, 2014, arrest during a bungled demonstration in which he patrolled the airport's Terminal 4 with a fully loaded and cocked AR-15 but no protest sign.
Police cuffed him and took his rifle after a women and her daughter claimed the muzzle had been pointed briefly at them. In a deal with Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, Steinmetz escaped legal punishment with a deferred prosecution agreement. Barrow Neurological Institute, where Steinmetz worked studying brain cells, put the scientist on leave and purged his name from its website. He's since left the institute and formed his own research company.
Then, last December, Steinmetz was kicked off a United Airlines flight after talking terrorism with a man who'd cut in front of him in line. He told the man that his chances of dying in a terrorist attack were less than one in 20 million.
That statistic was displayed prominently on signs Steinmetz and his comrades held on Saturday. Their protest began about 1 p.m. near the PHX Sky Train boarding area at 44th and Washington streets. Steinmetz wore a GoPro chest mount over his collared business shirt, but no firearm — his agreement with the county bans him from carrying openly at the airport for another year.
"Tolerated Sexual Assault," read a sign carried by Tempe computer programmer Dave Peterson, 48, that depicted travelers getting groped by security personnel. "TSA is a waste of time and money."
Flyers distributed by the group directed people to the website realairlinesecurity.org, created by Peterson and Steinmetz, which advocates the privatization of airline security work. Two of the activists left the demonstration early, but Peterson and Steinmetz spent the next couple of hours in Terminal 4 talking to airline passengers and walking near the security checkpoints with their signs.
Peterson, a former precinct committeeman for the Arizona Republican Party, says he finds TSA searches "humiliating" and that he's limited his air travel in recent years. This was his first time protesting at the airport, but he says he's attended Phoenix aviation board committee hearings for the past six months.
Steinmetz, on the other hand, is well known to police and TSA officials at Sky Harbor. At a similar demonstration last December, he says, one officer approached him saying, "Hello, Dr. Steinmetz." This time, authorities left him and Peterson alone, though one female officer with a walkie-talkie stalked the pair from a distance as they strolled through the terminal.
It's unclear what drove the scientist to ramp up his activism last year to a point that caused trouble for him at Barrow. Unlike Peterson, Steinmetz doesn't identify with the Republican Party, instead classifying himself as an extreme Libertarian. Two years ago, he and his teenage son were confronted by police, though not arrested, as they waited at the airport with their rifles for his wife to arrive on a flight.
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"They have caught zero terrorists and stopped zero terrorist attacks," he fumes in an interview. "We should privatize the screeners — that would improve customer satisfaction at the airports."
On the website he created, Steinmetz pushes for private companies to take over for the TSA. Airline officials and travelers could decide the best security practices for themselves, he says, and an airline might see booming business by allowing passengers to ditch most security practices, in effect trading security for convenience.
But in Steinmetz's opinion, the need for security is much more minimal than people believe. On the other hand, if some travelers want extra security, then another airline could offer that as an option. The federal money saved on the TSA could be used to build tornado shelters, buy bicycle helmets for poor kids, or do something else that would actually save lives, he says.
Steinmetz has two ongoing civil actions related to his July 2014 arrest: He's suing the state to clear his legal record, and he's also suing the county over its no-cash bail policy. He spent several extra hours in jail last July, he says, because jail officials would not take $5,000 cash for bail, instead requiring him to pay a bail bondsman $500 for the service.