I read a short story the other day where the main character spent paragraphs bemoaning the act of flying. “Humans were not made to hurtle through the sky – that’s why we don’t have wings.” Personally, while I understand the sentiment, I respectfully disagree. I marvel at the feats of ingenuity and engineering that created human flight. I thrill at the rumble of engines and the rattle of landing gears upon takeoff and landing. Even the close quarters and involuntary closeness with strangers — things that normally make me tense and fidgety — don’t niggle much when I’m on route to a new destination. The security though? That’s a different story.
Look, I’ve been traveling all around the world for as long as I can remember. That’s a privilege that I cherish. As a child, flying in a pre-9/11 world, the airport was a delightful wonderland. The euphoric embraces at the gate. The dazzling storefronts and sumptuous, overpriced meals. The friendly flight attendants and rambling museum exhibits. I loved it. Of course, with 9/11 it changed. I certainly don’t begrudge our nation giving into the impulse to dial up security in the face of horrific tragedy. That being said, I wish we could, at the very least, standardize the cumbersome and farcical TSA system.
See, there are things we know about TSA. We know that they tend to unfairly profile passengers of certain ethnicities. We know that they routinely violate women and passengers with disabilities. We know that they antagonize customers, and that the national organization seems unwilling or unable to create a standardized procedure. Sure, that could be a tactic – keep them on their toes. Of course, in the face of the smooth-running operations operated by many of our allies, I call shenanigans.
Let’s contrast two recent flying experiences, one month apart to the day. My November flight, from Phoenix to Boston, left midmorning. After years of flying, I have a system; my bag of liquids, laptop, tablet, and empty water bottle all live at the top of my carry-on. My jacket is always unzipped. I never wear a belt. Zippers and buckles on my shoes are undone before I enter the line. So, in Phoenix I grabbed my two bins, began to shrug off my jacket and froze at the announcement of the TSA agent.
“Everyone keep your shoes on. Laptops in the bag. Don’t worry about your liquids. Come through the metal detector.”
I double-checked my ticket. I wasn’t TSA Pre-Check or Global Entry. Blatantly scanning the tickets of my neighbors, I saw that they weren’t either. Yet here we were, blazing through the line, shoes and jackets on, laptops ensconced in bags, liquids unmoved. In-and-out in less than 5 minutes. Dumbfounded, I went to my gate and basked in the ease of it all.
Fast-forward one month later, I entered the airport for an early morning flight from Boston back to Phoenix. With two hours to spare for my flight, I took up a leisurely pace to the ticket checker, meandered into the security line. I started my standard procedures. Laptop and tablet out, in their own bin with my phone and ID. Jacket, scarf, water bottle, liquids in a bin of their own, too. There in the general boarding lane, every person ahead of me had their shoes on and were headed cheerfully through the metal detector (as opposed to the vaguely sci-fi pod scanners adjacent). Of course, the minute I stepped up, the agent barked at me:
“Do you have a red dot on your boarding pass?”
Eye-roll. Sigh. “Then take off your shoes.”
A pause. “Take your tablet away from your laptop. Why would you take out your tablet?”
For these transgressions, I was directed to the pod scanner, unsure if it was due to lack of Pre-Check status or my inability to realize that, once again, the rules had changed. Frankly, I wasn’t mad at that point. Perhaps a little peeved. I hadn’t yet even reached frustrated. I stepped through the scanner, only to be directed to the side for a pat-down. Not a big deal. Couldn’t be worse than the time I was strip-searched at sixteen, or interrogated in a side-office after my hand lotion triggered the explosives scanner as a college student, right?
Logically, I knew this was nothing. Not a big deal. Somehow, though, these tiny indignities — the smooth pat across the breasts, the rub at the hips — felt more humiliating, more infuriating, than my early experiences. This? The eye-rolls and huffs and sighs? The casual condescension and annoyance? These rankled more.
Because the other times? I at least understood them. When I was sixteen, shaking and separated from my group at the Baltimore airport, junior license ignored, someone else’s hands on my chest for the first time in my life, I was at least secure in the knowledge that the stranger groping me truly believed that they were neutralizing a threat. When I was 19, furious and ferocious in the face of almost an hour of questioning: where do you live, why are you traveling, who are you with — I knew that, at the very least, there was evidence (false but present) that warranted my treatment. I could request a report. I could demand a supervisor, documentation, an explanation.
This casual callousness from the TSA though? Their contemptuous frustration when I lacked the psychic abilities to keep up with the nebulous nature of their ever-changing set of rules? That made me angry. That made me grit my teeth. Made me stare, empty-eyed at my tormentor in the blank, vapid way that so infuriated my mother when I was a child.
Because it’s the casual contempt that hurts more. It’s the myriad indignities, the simple lack of empathy that cuts the deepest. I understand security. I know all about doing your job. But it’s never going to get better if they keep changing the rules. There’s no way to win when they keep moving the finish line. It’s the little things. Do better TSA; Ben Franklin would be disappointed in you.
Day 8: January 8, 2017