Instagrams That Wound: Punctum, Visual Enthymemes, and the Visual Argumentation of the Transportation Security Administration

By McHendry, George F. "Guy", Jr. | Argumentation and Advocacy, Winter-Spring 2017 | Go to article overview

Instagrams That Wound: Punctum, Visual Enthymemes, and the Visual Argumentation of the Transportation Security Administration


McHendry, George F. "Guy", Jr., Argumentation and Advocacy


In the wake of September 11, 2001, the United States of America made a series of drastic policy shifts at home and abroad, the legacy of which still endures today. One of the most visible and intractable state operations to form in response to 9/11 is the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks (2011) reports, "In November 2001, Congress passed and the President signed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act. This act created the TSA, which is now part of the Homeland Security Department" (391). TSA employs "50,000 security officers, inspectors, directors, air marshals and managers who protect the nation's transportation systems so you and your family can travel safely" (Transportation Security Administration). TSA conducts routine searches, in one form or another, of every passenger and their belongings. From 2011 to 2012, the cost of operating TSA eclipsed $8.1 billion and continues to rise (Department of Homeland Security 2012). TSA screens an average of 1.8 million passengers per day. Each of these screenings is in the service of searching for contraband like the box cutters used in the September 11 attacks.

TSA's project of airport security has been controversial as well: TSA has been attacked for being ineffective, TSA's security procedures have been attacked for being sexually aggressive, and TSA's workers have been accused of being thieves (Blackburn 2012). In a study of popular online discourse of TSA security, McHendry (2015) notes the rancor of anti-TSA discourse. For example, one individual asks, "Ever wonder why pedophile pedophile priests who are defrocked get jobs at TSA?" (277). Another fat shames an agent in a personal and sexist attack, "That fat cow standing there with her fat arms folded with her fat attitude, chewing her cud. What a disgrace" (276). Attacks on the agency are frequent and even when less personal they still insinuate that TSA is useless. Golson (2015) notes internal reports show the agency is ineffective at tests that attempt to sneak weapons through security, "They're staffed with blue-shirted government employees that poke through your bags and, if you're very unlucky, poke through you as well" (para. 1). An op-ed in The Orange County Register argues, "Now we know that, not only does the TSA routinely violate passengers' constitutional rights, it is completely ineffective at the one thing it is supposed to be doing" (para. 7). To counter its negative image, TSA has developed a savvy media operation, operating multiple twitter accounts, an active blog, and an image sharing Instagram account. TSA uses these accounts to disseminate the frequency with which it locates and confiscates dangerous items at security checkpoints.

In one week alone TSA found 38 loaded firearms, an inert grenade, "Five 40mm grenade launcher practice rounds," "one hollowed out replica mortar," a "magazine loaded with seven rounds of .45 caliber ammunition," two "concealed knives with 10-inch blades," 23 "credit card knives," and "firearm components, realistic replica firearms, bb and pellet guns, airsoft guns, brass knuckles, ammunition, batons and a lot of sharp pointy thing[s]" ("TSA week in review-38 loaded firearms, inert explosives, concealed items, and other items of note," 2014, paras. 1, 3-4). Looking only at firearms, TSA discovered 2,653 weapons--a 20% increase over the previous year--in passengers' carry-on bags in 2015. Publicizing the detection of firearms and dangerous objects is a key rhetorical strategy to reinforce the agency's efficacy.

TSA claims, "In many ways, Transportation Security Officers are the public face of our nation's security. It is difficult work, requiring patience, stamina, and great attention to detail. It requires extensive training and constant vigilance" ("TSA blog year in review," 2013, para. 4). The disconnect between TSA as ineffective gropers and as a constantly vigilant last line of defense is clear; as such, analyzing some of the ways TSA constructs the danger posed to the national air infrastructure and dramatizes its role in protecting passengers warrants careful analysis. …

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