The TSA is even worse than we thought

February 4, 2014 • 7:33 am

Some of the strongest reactions by readers come when they discuss their experiences flying in the U.S., and have to encounter the agents of Transportation Security Administration, or TSA.  Those agents are the dictators who order you around when you’re passing through security, make you stand in the See-You-Naked Machine, and run their hands over your body. I myself have groused at least twice (here and here) for being groped by agents on the “buttocks” (the term they use when they’re about to goose you.) The TSA has been the butt (pun intentional) of much malice and ridicule everywhere, and is repeatedly accused of promulgating ineffective “security theater.” Those accusations are on the money.

What’s been missing so far is an “inside” view of the TSA written by a real agent. Well, that’s been rectified by the publication of a piece in Jan. 30’s Politico Magazine by ex-TSA agent Jason Edward Harrington: “Dear America, I saw you naked.”  During and after getting his bachelor’s degree here in Chicago, Harrington worked six years as an agent for the TSA.  He quickly got fed up with the stupidity, vindictiveness, and ineffectiveness of the agency, and eventually started an anonymous website with the TSA’s initials, “Taking Sense Away.” (Harrington is still posting there from time to time although he left the agency to go to grad school in creative writing.)

Harrington’s Politico piece is not a detailed analysis of the TSA, but an insider’s view of what goes on at an airport checkpoint. And it confirms all the bad things we thought about airport security. Here are some of his allegations:

  • The original See-You-Naked Machines were completely ineffective, and in fact you could smuggle a gun through them if it was hidden on the side of your body.That was  discovered and publicized by blogger Jon Corbett on YouTube in this video:

There are new scanners now, but I suspect the same problem applies, although a metal detector could pick up small guns, knives, and the like.

  • The TSA agents (especially the men) have their own special jargon, much of which is sexist. For example, there are several code words for attractive female passengers, including “Code Red” (for a female wearing red), “Fanny Pack, Lane 2,” “X-ray X-ray, X-ray!,” and “Hotel Papa.” Given the multiplicity of terms, the male agents must spend a lot of time ogling women. There are also some humorous terms, though, including this phrase (the article includes a glossary of TSA jargon):

“Baby-shower-opt-out: When a woman opts out of the full body scanner and accidentally lets slip the explanation: “I don’t want to go through the scanner. I’m pregnant,” evoking a shriek from her fellow traveling companions, “Why didn’t you tell us, Becky? OH EM GEE!?” A mini celebration then takes place right there in the line. It is one of the few heartwarming things that ever come about due to the full body scanners.”

Actress Eva Mendes, in fact, just refused a scan in lieu of a body search, leading to rumors (which her people deny) that she’s carrying Ryan Gosling’s child.

  • Harrington had to do some ridiculous confiscations, including nail clippers from pilots (were they going to hijack their own plane with the clippers?), and tells this story:

“Once, in 2008, I had to confiscate a bottle of alcohol from a group of Marines coming home from Afghanistan. It was celebration champagne intended for one of the men in the group—a young, decorated soldier. He was in a wheelchair, both legs lost to an I.E.D., and it fell to me to tell this kid who would never walk again that his homecoming champagne had to be taken away in the name of national security.”

  • In the “IO room,” where agents are sequestered to examine the full-body scans in real time, they’d often gather and make fun of passenger’s bodies, particularly if they had piercings or were obese.  TSA officers who were romantically involved would often ask to be assigned to that room so they could kanoodle on duty, presumably neglecting the inspections while they were snogging.
  • Passengers who were rude would sometimes have their bags hand inspected or be searched bodily as retribution. The TSA agents’ term for this was “retailiatory wait time”; as Harrington notes:

“Retaliatory wait time: What happens when a TSA officer doesn’t like your attitude. There are all sorts of ways a TSA officer can subtly make you wait longer to get through security, citing imaginary alarms, going “above the SOP” for “a more thorough screening,” pretending that something in your bag or on your full body image needs to be resolved—the punitive possibilities are endless, and there are many tricks in the screener’s bag.”

  • For several years, until it was leaked, the TSA had a secret list of 12 countries whose citizens were automatically screened more intensively: their luggage was examined minutely and they were given full-body patdowns. This is, of course, profiling by nationality. The countries listed were Syria, Algeria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Cuba, Lebanon, Libya, Somali, Sudan, and North Korea.
  • Finally, Harrington implies that background checks of prospective agents were lax: he notes that one agent found out that the TSA had hired him but hadn’t run a background check even four years later.

While this piece is not an official analysis of TSA’s efficiency (I believe they’ve had those, and found in tests that people can get a lot of dangerous things through the scanners and X-ray machines), it does confirm that the agents are rude, sexist, retaliatory, and behave in ways that run counter to the agency’s mission to detect terrorists. Personally, I think the whole agency needs a top-to-bottom house cleaning. In Europe, for example, they usually don’t make you take your shoes off. Is that still really necessary? That’s only because of the shoe bomber, but that for one unsuccessful guy millions are now inconvenienced. Are those full-body scanners really effective? Is it ethical to search everyone just on the basis of nationality, or are there better ways of profiling, such as that employed by El Al? Regardless, the TSA, while looking pretty clumsy, has at the same time angered nearly every traveling American (and many foreigners) at one time or another.

You can see a short CNN video report on Harrington’s piece here.

If you like, use the comments to blow off steam and recount your annoying/infuriating encounters with the TSA. Personally, I find the agents generally rude and dictatorial: people who have never had power over others and, now that they have it, use it to treat the passengers like cattle.

From the comments section of a 2010 Daily Kos piece on travelers getting groped by TSA agents:

92 thoughts on “The TSA is even worse than we thought

  1. In general, I’ve found the TSA to be totally useless. My favorites are the “scanner techs” that are chatting with a coworker while carry-on bags go through.

    But nothing holds a candle to an experience I had at the Austin, TX airport. I’m on the “secure” side talking to this woman. She reaches into her purse to get something and this look of complete shock passes across her face. I ask what’s wrong and she pulls a 6 inch Bowie knife out of her purse. I just laughed.

  2. I’ve carelessly gone through the scanners with a dive knife (3″ blade) in my carry-on. Friends have accidentally carried on much larger knives.

    Yet I’ve had a decorative Swiss Army knife key-chain with a 1/4″ blade confiscated.

    Then there was the time I didn’t take my laptop out of my bag …

    Security theatre indeed.


    1. My wife taught for a while at a maxium security prison. She had to go through a couple of introductory classes before working. As an aside, I got to sit in on the classes as they wouldn’t let me sit in the parking lot and wait for her.

      Comparing there security to TSA – TSA isn’t even good theatre.

  3. Then there was the time when our kids were small and we took them to see Washington DC. My son, being a kid, bought a pair of plastic toy handcuffs in a gift shop at the FBI building (if memory serves). The poor kid was promptly hauled off by security at the airport.

  4. One of the blogs mentioned that Michale Chertoff, ex-TSA head, was part of the company that sold the $150k body scanners. If true, that suggests we are seeing not just buffoonery and theatre but serious high-level corruption.

    1. The corruption is worse than you think. The science behind some of these inspection procedures does little to actually mitigate threats that are well thought out.

  5. Harrington implies that background checks of prospective agents were lax:

    No implication needed; AFAIK the mainstream media has covered this in pretty good detail and the bottom line is that DHS treats screener jobs as a low wage service job. AIUI they (try to) screen out felons, but there aren’t a whole lot of other major qualifications needed. You get what you pay for.

    I have two memorable experiences of incompetence. In one case, they swiped my bag and put the swipe in some sort of detector. I’m a chemist – I was curious what they were using. So I asked…and of course the swiper had no idea what sort of instrument they were using, or how it worked, or what it detected, or really even how to operate it beyond the monkey level of “put swipe here, press button, look for red.” In the second experience I was waiting in the security line when there was a flurry of activity ahead. It turns out that for the last three hours the screeners had gotten a consistent reading of no results on one of their machines…because it was not turned on. The flurry was due to them failing a test and a manager realizing what was going on.

    If you don’t know how your machine works to even that minimal level of operational competency, you can’t tell the difference between true/false positives or (in the second case) true/false negatives. I have zero confidence that they know what how to correctly interpret the analytical results they get.

    1. Peter Ustinov has an amusing scanner anecdote, which I can’t find on You Tube. Here is a summary:

      Ustinov once recounted that as he was going through the metal scanner at Athens airport he noticed that the plug at the end of the scanner’s electrical lead was not plugged in but was instead lying on the floor in front of the power point.

      As Ustinov passed through the scanner he mimicked the “beep beep beep” sound that it would have made on detecting metal. To his astonishment the security personnel spun around and looked not at him but at the plug.

      (Ustinov later learned that the airport cleaning staff regularly disconnected the leads to plug in their cleaning equipment but that they were not authorised to reconnect the scanners. The security personnel, who were authorised, left the leads unconnected to save having to deal with the extra work and requirements entailed in an alarm being set off).

  6. How timely, since I have to fly to Vegas tomorrow morning. I’ve been singled out for a pat down, had a water bottle confiscated and have left the line to check my luggage instead of throwing away toiletries on more than a few occasions. Ineffective and irritating are the more pleasant terms I use concerning the TSA.

  7. In Europe, for example, they usually don’t make you take your shoes off.

    Having just spent a weekend in the UK, I can testify that at least not on Schiphol Airport and London Stansted, this is not true. A lot of passengers had to take off their shoes/boots.

    All pockets had to be emptied, jackets/coats and belts taken off for scanning, tablets/laptops scanned separately, etc. The staff in general were friendly and the body scanners are not (yet) standard, so that’s still better than the US situation.

    1. At Heathrow they have (or did) signs saying words to the effect of ‘Keep your shoes on unless told to take them off’.


    2. Does destination make a difference? Somehow I’d gotten the impression that flights bound for the US were subject to more stringent inspections.

  8. I dread going through TSA. It was bad enough when US Customs would lip you off (I once encountered one that was trying to impress his female co-worker by yelling at me when I didn’t go in the same line as my traveling companion – buddy blew it BTW as she looked embarrassed at his behaviour – women don’t really go for men that verbally abuse other women). Now it’s even worse and the last thing you want to have happen is to be put on a no fly list. Now US Customs is usually pleasant compared to TSA (at least in air ports, they can still be real jerks when driving across the border).

    When I encounter TSA, I go into my survival mode where I express no emotion, act very calm and speak only when spoken to. I think I learned this as a child when my elementary school teachers were insane and would often scream in your face (the older I get, the more I realize I lived in a crazy hick town that employed incompetent teachers).

    I remember once when we were all lining up (I think it was in Boston) & taking off our shoes, there were some befuddled elderly people (can you blame them? You have to get your passport, airline tickets, watch your luggage then take off your shoes & answer all the questions). The TSA agent started yelling at them & calling them stupid. It was horrible.

    The one line that was nice was in Hawaii on Big Island. The TSA line is outside and they are very laid back. I left my computer in my bag and they didn’t even yell at me. 🙂

    I recently heard a news story on CBC when some guy tried to board with a pipe bomb and they confiscated it then let him on. Duh. They had someone on the line from an Israeli airport who told them the security is pure theatre yet the representative for the air port (in Canada – we have to comply with crazy US guidelines) thought Israeli security was too intense. Pffft who cares! It’s probably way less invasive than our ineffective security!

    I have to say, it’s a joy to travel to other places. The security in Australia & New Zealand is so much better & they are nice to you! Imagine that! They ask you questions but they aren’t jerks about it.

    1. “I express no emotion, act very calm and speak only when spoken to.”

      Sounds like you’re prepared for the new police and surveillance state we’re building.

    2. I am an Australian regularly travel to Bali, once when returning to Australia I put no fixed address on my customers declaration as I really had no idea where I was going to stay. The customs agent got visibly angry with me, saying I was being stupid. I returned fire telling him that the declaration for was a legal document and I was being honest and I did not appreciate his unprofessional manner. But I must say that other than that one jerk I have found the Australian customs to be polite, highly trained professionals. Once while waiting in line at the baggage scanners in Indonesia I saw the X ray operator take a really big yawn, leaning back on his chair arms out stretching EYES Closed while six or seven bags went through the machine.

  9. Having travelled several times into countries of the Eastern block, I can testify that the treatment we ‘class enemies’ received then was no worse than what you regularly experience with TSA or US customs and border patrol (though the latter seems to ease up in recent months). TSA etc are the brainchildren of an ideology that sees the whole world as enemies of The US. Et voila: you become what you hate…

  10. As tragically comic as TSA airport screenings are, they don’t even begin to compare with the fact that they’re in the process of expanding to rail and bus systems…and to sporting events…and even to private vehicular roadway checkpoints.

    No, I’m not joking nor exaggerating.

    How long until TSA agents are checking little old ladies driving to the grocery store against the no-fly list?

    Papers, please!


    1. Before 9/11 I had thought of the U.S. as being full of moderately principled and resilient people. After 9/11 I just can’t get over what panicky cowards we’ve turned out to be. It is truly amazing how quickly were willing to piss away any principle: wage indiscriminate war, embrace torture and indefinite detentions, engage in universal surveillance, grant unprecedented police powers, and on and on. I realize that you can’t sit idly by while people fly planes into more buildings, but if your only principle or value is safety, or worse, the mere illusionary assurance of safety, then you are eventually going to get what you put in an order for and that is an authoritarian nightmare.

      1. Your comment reminds me of something Hannah Arendt wrote in regard to the nature and creation of the totalitarian states in Europe pre 1939,

        “Nothing proved easier to destroy, then the privacy and private morality of people who thought of nothing, but safeguarding their private lives”

        (Origin of Totalitarianism)

      2. This is behavior modification in action.

        Notice how people panicked when the suggestion was made that small knives might be allowed on flights (now that cabins are quite secure), an irrational fear considering that people carry small knives all the time in stores, theaters, restaurants, buses and no one thinks much about it. But suggest this scenario for a plane and the conditioned behavior displays itself.

        I suspect the proposal may have been a test run, to see how the brainwashing was succeeding.

        1. It’s not so much a test run as it is continued conditioning.

          If it’s necessary to be strip-searched before boarding a plane, why shouldn’t it also be necessary to be strip-searched before entering a sports stadium or grocery store?

          The Fourth was written explicitly to forbid these sorts of governmental actions. And, yes, they had the exact same problems then as today. This should sound familiar to all Americans:

          He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

          How is that any different from 9/11? And why should the response in 1776 be to shed the bonds of tyranny, but in 2001 to build and strengthen them?

          Re-read the rest of the Declaration. Many of the rest of the complaints against King George used to justify the Revolution are today common practice by the American government against its own subjects.


          1. It’s not s trip search yet, as a season ticket holder for the Bears I can tell you the last few years gate access has gone from open access to no outside containers to pat downs and bag searches. This year it was no bags or purses, hold the contents of your pockets in your hands while you get wanded.

            1. I don’t fly any more, and I don’t go to the ballpark either, simply because I’m tired of being treated like a terrorist. If those corporations want my money, they can go to the trouble to make my experience pleasant.

              I also find Dr. Coyne’s last line, “people who have never had power over others and, now that they have it, use it to treat the passengers like cattle” to be spot on.

      3. To be fair, the police state has been both a long time coming and not something resulting from an upswelling of popular demand. “Conspiracy” might not be the proper word, as it implies clandestine meetings in smoke-filled rooms. But lots of people who definitely know their Machiavelli and their Jefferson and their Orwell and their Goebbels have taken actions that those who’re familiar with said works will instantly recognize as being optimal for instituting tyranny. The collusion may well be tacit, but it’s been unmistrakable and superbly effective — and top-down from major parties.



        1. “The country that will trade a little liberty for a little security will lose both and deserve neither.”

  11. I think TSA is very close to useless, however, they have never made my travel experiences unpleasant. I also know that unpleasant people have no effect on me.

    1. I fly quite a bit and my experience is similar to yours. While I find the whole process of inspection annoying and tedious, I have never really had a problem with the actual agents. And to be honest, for a male business traveler it takes me only 20 minutes on average to get through the process soup to nuts.

      Except at JFK. On two separate instances I and several others were berated by very aggressive and obnoxious TSA agents for failure to do…something. It was impossible to tell what that something was, as the security area was borderline chaos and the noise level was out of control. It was just angry faces in blue uniforms screaming at you for 45 minutes.

      The working environment at JFK for these agents seems abysmal and must be contributing to their miserable personalities.

    2. Same here. I’m not fond of the institution itself, nor of the general atmosphere of fear and paranoia that spawned it and many much worse things, but the TSA agents I’ve personally interacted have been pretty unoffensive considering the policies they are charged with carrying out.

  12. I once made a trip to Iceland from Germany here, and since I was visiting my mum directly afterwards, I had stuff in my suitcase I would not normally bring on a flight: A video tape, and three small, self made wood sculptures.

    So imagine what the operators saw on their screen: A magnetic tape, dull shapes from the wood, and an odd mass of mechanical bits which were my camera. On the German side they had me have a look at it, and it really radiated suspectedness (I asked for a printout, but they refused).

    Needless to say, the suitcase was searched on both airports, but they were quite friendly and apologetic about it – the agent in Iceland even helped me packing again.

    So now a question for the Americans among you: What’d the TSA done to me?

  13. I traveled across the planet with my passport scrutinized every step of the way (traveling from the Middle East always causes that) and didn’t realize until I got home that the signature page of my passport was missing. I’m not sure how important that page is, I’m guessing not too important, but it seemed odd not to be questioned about it at the very least.

    My girlfriend from Bahrain has traveled numerous times to see me…she gets pulled aside every single time for a more personal inspection.

    I have never understood the point of discarding our drinks before going through security. That drink might be a liquid bomb, please go through it in the trash bin right over there. 0_0

    1. Because a small explosive device that might injure a dozen people if detonated on the ground can easily take down an aircraft and kill hundreds.

      I’ve never found the liquids rule onerous, provided that free drinking water fountains are provided after security, as they usually are.

  14. I fly frequently. My impression is that TSA is far better now than in its earlier years — not good, but far better. I have hope.

    I have to say I’m really astounded by American’s adverse reaction to what the OP calls See-You-Naked machines. It seems to me that those who get all bent out of shape are just plain nuts. I’ve never seen a rational explanation as to why anyone should care.

    But, then, I’m an ANNR tanner in the FANR manner.

    1. My wife and I have been members of a naturist group as well, but I still consider the TSA involuntary actions deeply offensive.

      1. As a side comment… if some of those actions were done by someone else, it would have been considered sexual assault. But for some reason TSA agents are different from the rest of us.

  15. I once decided to change my jacket just before leaving on a flight. After getting through ‘security ‘ I reached into the jacket pocket and found a folding hunting style knife left over from yard work months earlier.

    How did they miss that?

  16. what I’m a bit confused about is the “shock” evinced by some people that some TSA employees make fun of people. That happens everywhere from what I can tell. If you think that, say, the folks behind the counter at the grocery store, fast food restaurant, clothing store, hardware store, are angels who don’t snicker the ridiculous people they see and the bizarre questions they are asked, gawk at appealing people or they don’t get tired and angry at people being twits and make sure that they have to wait longer or not get what they asked for, you aren’t aware of reality. Granted, the folks at the grocery store aren’t usually touching you which may also be why people are so horrified.

    I’m not intending on excusing such behavior, but it does show that the TSA isn’t the “hive of scum and villainy” that some people would claim it to be. Most are blissfully ignorant of the fact that this happens all of the time. The ideal of “professionals” isn’t very true. Especially if the job is tedious and low-paying.

    1. You hit on an important point in your last sentence. People tend to behave in controlling & inappropriate ways, including objectifying & seeing those the serve as their enemy, when they have very little power, are encouraged not to think but to just follow instructions & deal with tedium. I experienced similar behaviour when I worked in jobs in the service industry.

      In my view, a job such as a TSA agent, should be paid higher, there should be a skill set that involves thinking & accountability for the decisions given to the agents for thinking for themselves. Of course, this is completely opposite from what the set up is.

      1. The TSA should not exist, period, full stop. The only acceptable reform is disbandment.

        The 9/11 attacks demonstrated that an hijacked airliner was a significant military threat to civilians and infrastructure — at least as devastating, if not more so, than any cruise missile with a conventional explosive payload. There is a perfectly valid interest in ensuring that no plane could be hijacked again.

        But the solution to that problem is trivial. Airliners already have two entrances at the front; all that was necessary was to install a solid, no-door bulkhead at a diagonal such that the left-hand door leads to the cabin as usual but with no access to the cockpit, and the right-hand door leads directly to the cockpit with no access to the cabin.

        Could “evildoers” still do something nasty to the plane while it’s in flight? Of course. But they could do something even more nasty to more people with much more ease on the ground. Once the cockpit is secure, the plane is no longer a significant threat; indeed, it moves to the bottom of the list, with the brand-new “security” chokepoints a much more significant hazard than any airliner will ever be again.

        Think about it: what’s to stop a terrorist from strapping all kinds of explosives to his body, getting in the security line, and waiting until he’s halfway to the screening checkpoint to blow himself up? What’s to stop a dozen such terrorists from doing that at the exact same time the day before Thanksgiving? The resulting death toll could potentially be at least as bad, if not worse, than if they managed to smuggle the explosives onto the plane before detonating them.

        So, no. We shouldn’t pay the TSA agents more, we shouldn’t have more rigorous hiring standards for them, we shouldn’t give them better training. We should fire the lot of them.



        1. There are SO many easy terrorism targets, the fact terrorism here is virtually non-existent tells us that the TSA is meaningless. If it were really stopping attacks, the attacks would be appearing elsewhere.

          I would add that the lucky hit of the 911 group DID NOT constitute a military or existential threat to the US. The military, the police, the government (with the exception of a number of casualities) remained fully operational. That terrorist attach was not even remotely comparable to an actual military attack by a major nation state. And indeed the terrorism is far less than Iraq is enduring at this time.

          The US was not ever actually threatened by these incidents, the only threat came from the national state of fear, promoted by government officials.

          1. Well, to be fair, they did cause significant damage to the Pentagon, and the damage to civilian targets was of the same nature (but a much smaller scale) as what we did to Dresden and Hiroshima. I think it’s perfectly valid to consider it a military attack, and a significant one, too.

            Did we retain the capacity to wipe any target we desired off the face of the Earth? Of course. But, as the ongoing war in Afghanistan demonstrates, brute force is only a very, very small part of modern warfare.

            At the same time, the actual damage from the attacks was comparable to about a month’s worth of what happens on our roads and freeways. We could sustain an attack of that same scale every month and the cost in property and lives would be no worse than what we’re already quite comfortable paying driving everywhere.

            If our leadership were of the same calibre as those who founded the country, the response would most emphatically not have included wiping our asses with the Constitution. There might have been troops dispatched to secure the cockpit doors of aircraft before bulkheads could have been installed, and there’d be a massive police investigation (with warrants flying left and right), but that’d have been the extent of the domestic response.


        2. The TSA should not exist, period, full stop. The only acceptable reform is disbandment.

          Ben Goren for President!

            1. You said many, many things with which I agree completely! If you’re going to lose my vote, you’re going to have to say something stupid!

              1. I don’t want Ben to become President because he won’t be able to swear as much and that is the icing on his non-stupid cake. 😀

              2. Well, he’s lost my vote, but if he gets elected anyway, I doubt it will cut appreciably into his, uh, colorful vocabulary.

                I think my all-time favorite Gorenism was “Fuck Mohammed in the ass sideways, with rusty barbed wire…and no lube!”

  17. “Once, in 2008, I had to confiscate a bottle of alcohol from a group of Marines coming home from Afghanistan. It was celebration champagne intended for one of the men in the group—a young, decorated soldier. He was in a wheelchair, both legs lost to an I.E.D., and it fell to me to tell this kid who would never walk again that his homecoming champagne had to be taken away in the name of national security.””

    Why wasn’t this simply taken to be checked baggage? I believe champagne can be in checked baggage.

  18. I have insulin-dependent (type 1) diaberes and always have juice witn me if im out and about. TSA guidelines woukd refer to my juice as a “medically necessary liquid,” and I’m allowed to have it. I just need to have it out and alert the screener. On several ocassions, after the screeners have grudgingly allowed me to keep my juice—sometimes they test it— I’ve had all my carry-ons thoroughly searched. The logic being, I guess, that anyone who would carry juice is more likely to carry a bomb in his bag?

    1. I’m going to start refering to my liquids (especially caffeine saturated ones) as “medically necessary liquid”. That term is just hilarious in its formality. Good grief, just say – “this person can drink juice because of diabetes”.

  19. I don’t dispute any of the items presented here, but I feel it is only fair to state that my encounters with TSA agents have been uniformly professional and mostly annoyance free. In fact, my TSA encounters last month were surprisingly pleasant.
    My last international flight was about 10 years ago, and nearly all of my flights never go beyond California and Arizona, plus I am a white guy in my mid 50s, so I’m probably in a very privileged class of fliers. That said, up until my xmas travel last year, I have always had to take my shoes off and I get my bags opened nearly every trip. Sometimes I ask the reason for whatever was being done and the answers are usually ridiculous, but I just keep in mind that these agents have to follow whatever protocols are created at TSA headquarters and at Homeland Security (boy, if ever a U.S. agency sounded like something dreamt up in the Kremlin, that’s the one).
    Yes, a lot of what they do is useless anti-terrorism theater. But frankly, that is OUR fault. If the American citizenry would realize that the goal of terrorism is to make us feel perpetually nervous, and if they would understand that they are much more likely to die in a car accident than be hurt by any terrorist, then there would be no value in committing terrorist acts and we could all go back to a much more normal state of affairs.

    1. “Homeland Security (boy, if ever a U.S. agency sounded like something dreamt up in the Kremlin, that’s the one)”

      I have always thought so as well. Just that name creeps me out. It’s as if the people creating these things have read no history (or Orwell) to feel a slightly nauseating twinge of recognition in these terms. As others have noted, the term is tone deaf also in that we are a country not defined so much by a physical place, by our ancestors long roots to this piece of dirt or ethnic origin, but by a set of ideals. What U.S. citizen ever referred to their country as their “homeland” anyway? It’s an alien kind of word used to crown a potentially dangerous institution that is, itself, sort of alien to our national experience. In that sense I suppose it is fitting.

      1. Its as if the people creating these things have read no history (or Orwell) to feel a slightly nauseating twinge of recognition in these terms.

        The people who created the current police state are perfectly well versed in both history and Orwell.

        Most charitably, they truly think that the only way to save a free state is by chaining it, and they can think of no better way to do so than by following the same paths as taken before — but this time they’ll make sure they don’t let it get out of hand.

        Much more likely, they’re just power-hungry sick fucks who know from history and Orwell that, yes, this shit really does work, and here’s how to do it.


    2. I think what has been lost, is a fundamental appreciation of what “living” really entails, the nature of a liberal democracy, and the ability to put the costs and value of the benefits into perspective, i.e,

      To live is dangerous, and to live in a democracy is also inherently dangerous, because the very freedom and rights it normally provides to individuals, allows them to use that same freedom to do destructive things.

      And if you are not prepared to pay the price for democracy, i.e. carry that risk, you will run the danger of losing it alltogether.

      What I find amazing is that this has been formulated so memorable, so many times, by so many illustrious thinkers, not ĺeast by Jefferson et al, and beyond that, the events of the past century should have burnt this lesson into our collective memory for ages to come.

  20. TSA = Tit/Testicle Squeezing Authority.

    I’ve had to take my shoes off for them, nothing bad has happened, but I have heard enough bad stories that I don’t want to travel by air in the US.

  21. I was once waved through the scanner with my reading glasses perched on my head, which triggered a review. They showed me the image–it looked as if I had a couple of nubby horns, carefully boxed in green (I think it was) so anyone could identify the “problem areas.” Of course, then a simple look at me explained the alert.

    Nevertheless I was taken aside and carefully wanded head-to-toe (I know, coulda been worse), though that, of course, was with a metal detector, while the offending glasses themselves were plastic with only those teeny tiny metal screws…

    That wasn’t my worst experience, simply one of the more ludicrous ones. What I’ve never forgiven them for is making it essentially impossible for my now-deceased parents to fly in their later years. They had grown increasingly feeble–both in their 90’s–but could have handled the flight itself; they simply could not endure the extra hours required to arrive ridiculously early, standing in line for however long, the humiliation of slowing everyone down, not being able to remove their shoes easily, not always understanding/able to hear right away what order was barked at them, not being able to have relatives help them to and from the gates, etc. There are few pleasures left in those later years–we should not treat our elderly as if they’re disposable; they’re feeling diminished enough already.

    1. The elderly are just a visible tip of the iceberg. The way the TSA treats them is reprehensible. But countless citizens have the same problems, only not so visibly.

      Again, the answer isn’t to smooth over the more in-your-face abuses; it’s to shut down the whole bloody mess and start acting as a civilized and free society again.


        1. I feel sorry for the small-government ideologues. Their naivet&eaccute; has let the Koch Brothers and their ilk convince them to focus on shrinking the government that’s in the best interest of the people; at the same time, the Brothers have played upon their fears in order to grow the government (and private industry) that’s in the best interests of the Brothers. They’ve been expertly played, in other words.


        2. They only like small government when it means cutting meat inspectors, pollution monitoring etc. You know, the things that no one really needs. Big defence budgets are ok.

    2. I don’t think I’ve ever not had my bags hand inspected. I think it’s all the various containers I carry. I did have a TSA agent remark that she appreciated that I had labelled all of my zip lock bags of stuff (I even do this with cables) & she could tell it was a woman’s bag by my organization skills. 😀

  22. I haven’t had any rude or annoying TSA agents yet, and I travel a lot. On the couple of times I’ve had to have a pat-down, the TSA guys have been almost apologetic. When they finish, I like to say “Thanks, what do I owe you.”

  23. When I flew from NZ to Paris recently (via Sydney and Abu Dhabi – I will NOT fly the other way via the US and the TSA is one big reason) – I was not surprised that the (rather crappy) meal on Air New Zealand to Sydney came with plastic knives and forks. What did surprise me was the the (far better) meal on Etihad Airways to Abu Dhabi, and the even better one on Air France to Paris, both came with nice stainless steel cutlery, of better quality than I’ve got at home. Evidently Etihad and Air France have figured out it’s a long time since anyone hijacked an aircraft using cutlery.

    Incidentally, the other major annoyance of air travel – the detailed inquisitorial ‘arrival form’ that threatens anyone arriving in NZ – when I arrived at Challes de Gaulle airport I suddenly realised I hadn’t filled one in. The French – just don’t bother. They do passports and that’s all. I collected my bag and headed past three or four guys wearing shirts marked ‘Douane’ to the door (I thought) to the customs hall – and found myself out in the main concourse. Just like that. No thirty-minute wait in queues. No multiple-choice customs declaration to fill in. The rampant bureaucracy that plagues us here under the sacred-cow pretext of ‘safety’ and ‘security’ just doesn’t seem to flourish in France.

    1. I’ve always found the service and food on Air New Zealand to be excellent buy maybe it is because I’m on a long haul flight. The worst is Air Canada who I call “Total Bastard Airlines” after the 90s SNL skit.

      1. I have to say I found Etihad (who I’d never heard of before) to be superior on both counts. But Air France was still the best, food-wise (as I’d kinda hoped).

        I was getting very thirsty on the long Sydney – Abu Dhabi overnight haul so the kind hostess gave me a 1.5-litre bottle of water which I took with me all the way to Paris and (with refills) all round France and half way home. Airport security in Abu Dhabi finally confiscated it, much to my disappointment.

        1. Heh, on Total Bastard Airlines (Air Canada), I developed a migraine as I was waiting forever for the food to get to me. The food we had to pay for. I asked the guy selling food on the opposite aisle from me for water and he said to wait until the person on my aisle got to me. Does it really matter? So an hour went by because I was in the back and by the time they got to me my migraine was in full swing (I had nothing to take the pill with) and there was no food left to buy accept cheese that turned out to be moldy.

          On another trip, a Canadian soldier had the misfortune to be flying with them. He told them he couldn’t get his gear in the overhead so could they stow it and they said no, just leave it on the seat (these are the people who go crazy if you have wired headphones on while lifting off). He was crowding a woman with a baby (who the gear could’ve hit and killed on take off) so I think he eventually got her husband to help him put the gear somewhere.

          So bad!

          1. Something that IS an issue – I’m sure many people have one condition or another for which they’re advised ‘take plenty of liquids’. Yet when you’re flying, not only is the air extra dry but you’re reliant on the infrequent cabin service for a tiny glass of water. (Hence my request to the nice hostess who produced the big bottle of water – but she was probably breaking the rules).

            BUT – any attempt to carry lots of water yourself will be likely foiled by Security! You *may* be able to buy more water (usually at a rip-off price) in the departure lounge and carry it on, or you may not. So all in all, flying can be a significant health risk.

  24. I am terrified of flying, but flew last year to Detroit for my son’s grad school graduation after 30 years of not flying. The TSA agents were remarkably nice to me since I had no idea what to do. My husband has a “bionic” knee and has been made to drop his pants…when wearing shorts! I agree though, with the commenter who spoke of being a privileged class, being white and middle aged. Good experiences in Boston and Detroit, because I smiled a lot? Nervously.

  25. One of my grad students had been a Navy Seal, and he’d had an assignment to test security by attempting to carry guns onto planes. He said it was ridiculously easy, and that he’d never been detected. AFter he’d gotten through, he’d pull his badge and show the agents, and oh my, the consternation!

    The most amusing thing I ever had taken from me was nail scissors, obviously dangerous weapons. My niece had her wooden knitting needles confiscated.

    The most amusing thing I ever smuggled through were samples of diamond film I’d synthesized on silicon chips: I was taking them to London for analysis with a special kind of laser. I did not care to attempt to explain that these were “diamond”, after which I’d be detained for smuggling gems, or to say the word “silicon”, after which I’d be detained for smuggling computer technology.

    So I wore a heavy winter coat and slipped them into the pockets, put the coat on the belt through the machine, and the thickness of the coat (or something) prevented their detection.

    Never try to say the word “science”, especially “chemical” to TSA (or Customs). The only reason you’d have chemicals is to destroy a plane or smuggle dangerous materials.

  26. I would be tempted to refuse the X-ray thingy and prefer a pat-down, and while in the pat-down booth I would make loud “Aaaaah, aaaaah, aaaaaah, don’t stop, I’m coming, don’t stop, aaaaah”

    Joke aside, just over a year ago I flew from Geneva to Saint Petersburg with a two hour stop in Hamburg, both ways, and the only security measures were, besides hand-luggage and handbag going through X-ray machines, the removal of metallic objects from my pocket and passing through metal detecting “door frames”, in all three airports.

    1. I should have read the other comments first. It’s exactly the same in South African airports. When I hear about people taking off shoes and being patted down, it just boggles my mind.

  27. Later this month I’ll be making my first international flights, so I’ll get a sense of how things are in other countries. Here in South Africa it’s simple though. You check your bags in first (no idea what happens to them) before going to the departures area (which is only for passengers). To get there you walk through a metal detector and your carry-on luggage goes through an X-ray scanner. That’s it.

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