In defense of the TSA

December 31, 2010

I flew halfway across the globe twice in the last two weeks. At least ten TSA agents have seen my bones. Two have felt my nipples. One told me they liked the band whose shirt I was wearing. All because I said “Happy new year, man.” Those bodyscanners people talk about, pretty cool in an unnecessary sci-fi way. I half-expected to see the engineer Scotty on the other side. I didn’t even have to take off my shoes which was nice. In the middle of this, I misplaced my US paperwork and had to deal with TSA and immigration trying to figure out if I was legal. That turned into a discussion on literature, home, mothers and Ireland while we waited for the printer to work. I semi-flirted with a lovely immigration agent who gave me a card to fill out commenting on her service today. While asking me if I was importing alcohol or cigarettes, she warned me that smoking was injurious to my continued wellbeing. Best service ever.

I’ll gladly admit I carried an apple paring knife in my laptop bag through Amsterdam Schiphol a month or so after the underwear bomber. Also, an apple. Another time, I brought a ceremonial dagger into Canada as a present for my friend Morgan, without getting flagged. TSA is security theater. Anyone who flies with any degree of regularity probably knows this. It’s the illusion of safety that we’re paying for in the nanny state.

I look fairly Middle-Eastern, can speak enough Arabic to talk to lost Arabs at airports but I’ve been searched only a few times. I think that’s a credit to the ideal of fairness that is at the heart of modern civilization. It also helps that I usually walk around wearing a metal T-shirt that says Satan! or some such and have two braids in my beard. It’s pretty obvious that no religious nutbag would want anything to do with me. The border guard at the Bellingham border crossing asks me somewhat leerily every time if I’m a Satanist. Every time I tell this story though, I’m greeted with some variety of surprise. “Really?”, “I knew the TSA were incompetent but not that incompetent” or “no offense, but you were born in the Middle East, if they don’t check you, who will they check?” These are not stupid people I interact with, but fairly ordinary well-intentioned folk who are the sole reason we have a TSA in the first place. Because they need to be placated. For them to feel safe, I have to be searched.

The scanners do this. There’s no way a guy like me’s carrying anything onto a plane anymore. Cool. The outrage, it occurs to me, is because these folks are being subjected to the same pointless scrutiny that any brown person can expect at an airport. And not just there. Hell, a few months ago, I was meeting a date at the subway station in nyc. It was cold as fuck out and I had some bright yellow flowers I didn’t want to expose to the cold so I sat down on the ground, listened to some Afro-Cuban Allstars because for once in my life, I was early and my date was late. This random old lady checks me out, goes up the stairs, comes back again 5 minutes later to make sure I’m still there and then leaves. Five minutes later, the cops are there asking if I saw any suspicious activity and the alarm’s ringing. I had no clue what was going on. I had my headphones in so it’s not like I even knew anything was up. The cops looked frustrated but complimented my taste in flowers and wished me good luck. They went away muttering how this always fucking happened. And me, obliviously singing Habana Del Este, in my nicer clothes, carrying yellow flowers. I think it’s hilarious.

On this trip, I saw a woman, apropos of nothing, tell a TSA dude that “my grandmother has an artificial leg. I’ll bet you bastards will make her take that off too, huh?” Most folks in line for Amsterdam were more resigned and tired than anything else. Most of the TSA agents looked about the same. I’m pretty sure no one wanted to be feeling up strangers or being felt up by strangers for Christmas. Who knows how much abuse they’ve got to take from people concerned about their own civil liberties? I’m pretty sure that cops and immigration folk aren’t stupid. They’ve been doing their job long enough that they’re at least competent. With competence comes the capacity for good judgment. Judgment’s knowing which fights to pick. They were doing okay before all this hysteria about nothing caused people to force them to overreact.

This is what happens when much of the noise-making public’s driven by fear and wants something, anything to be done by a government they don’t believe in. It’s a quaint little paradox of “we don’t trust the Government but we’d love for it to be more active in everyone else’s lives but mine.” In such an environment, it makes perfect sense that security theater is necessary PR. The untrustworthy government must cater to the whims of people who don’t understand much about flying or airplanes or security. The people won’t trust them anymore but at least they’re doing something and the alternative is even less trust.

It’s not pleasant. I don’t much like this security theater business but you know what, it’s seriously not the worst thing in the world. I barely have the capacity to be outraged about everyone being made to feel ridiculous. To change this will require rollback of the very way we perceive ourselves, our expectations of government and risk. I don’t expect that will happen so until then, enjoy being Middle Eastern, Middle America.

In the meantime, you might want to do what I do. Smile, joke, flirt. It makes some poor hack’s life slightly less miserable. I’ve gotten through so many bureaucratic loopholes simply by being polite and charming. Better that than screaming about civil liberties.

ps: yes, I consider myself to be politically libertarian. So what?

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