One of the most common things a TSA screener hears from passengers on a day-to-day basis is: “Oh! I know what it is!” This is usually said in regard to an alarm on the walk-thru metal detector, an anomaly on the full body scanner, or, most often, a call for a bag check. But I’ll let you on a little secret:
No, you probably don’t know what it is. Half the time we don’t even “know” what “it” is.
This is TSA we’re talking about, people. Most everything is inconsistent, senseless, chaotic and rationality-deficient, so any one thing that happens on a checkpoint at any given time usually has absolutely no connection to anything resembling a deeply satisfying explanation. Oh, the “officers” may appear all official and industrious in their faux police officer uniforms and impersonator badges, but really, behind it all, it’s just a big, dumb jumble.
Here’s how it actually works, from a former TSA officer: we mindlessly go around just doing things, and owing to the sheer number of mindless procedures and empty, senseless rules, it all becomes white noise. We are constantly swabbing hands (essentially self-defeating any hope that a hand swab alarm would ever be TSA’s miracle Hail Mary shot to actually catch a terrorist), mindlessly throwing away bottles of liquid and gels (under the logic that they may pose a threat, but I ask you, screeners at any medium-to large sized airport: how often do you liquids test a bottle of water or jar of peanut butter before you mindlessly toss it in a garbage bin right there on the checkpoint?) just mindlessly doing things. It is essentially a cacophony of million-and-billion dollar gadgetry crying wolf all day and night, with hardly anything being even theoretically accomplished, besides hassling the people we are supposedly protecting.
Now, I will tell you right now what the TSA’s official response to this big heap of truth would be:
“The screening procedure is unpredictable by design, so that terrorists are unable to exploit our security systems by monitoring our procedures and working around them. We have many layers of security, which…” etc, etc.
Let me ask you this, TSA, as one of your former employees: if everything for a given organization is explained away as “unpredictable”—purely random— then isn’t there (just humor here for a minute, TSA, I know this couldn’t possibly be the case) but isn’t there just the slightest chance that maybe, just maybe, that organization would at times take advantage of the unpredictability cloak and file things that are really just dumb, inefficient inconsistencies and errors under the heading of “unpredictable”? And since the screening process is all just a big storm of regular unpredictability, why not have an occasional, unpredictable “Let People Take the Jar of Apple Butter That Their Grandma Surprise- Packed Into Their Luggage Day?” Or an occasional “Shut Down the Nude Scanners and Just Do Pat Downs on People with Excessively Baggy Clothing Day?” Hey, it’s all unpredictable, anyway, put your TSA officers in clown wigs every now and then, terrorists won’t know what to make of that, while the American public sure as hell will.
Another common thing that officers hear is: “This bottle of shampoo got through such-and-such airport, but now you guys are telling me I can’t have it.”
The explanation for this is simple: the airport where your slightly oversized bottle of liquid successfully passed through was staffed at the time by an x-ray operator who either A. Didn’t notice the bottle of liquid or other “contraband” item because he or she was too busy thinking about things such as whether or not they were going to soon be terminated for something ridiculous such as failing to use the proper hand motion on the inside mesh pocket of a test suitcase during the annual PSE test or B. the x-ray operator at the other airport noticed the bottle of liquid, but, being a screener of the thinking variety, shrewdly weighed the costs and benefits of stopping the whole security show just to have a bag checker steal your jar of Grandma’s apple butter for no really good reason, thereby wasting everyone’s time and doing absolutely nothing to make anything safer since the liquids rule is basically just idiotic, and in a snap decision—(a miraculous show of human rationality and intelligence actually operating in a place as intellectually impoverished as a TSA checkpoint, oh, bless the rare, thinking TSA officer!)— decided to just let your liquid pass through and save everyone the little security show. This happens all the time at airports all across the country, I guarantee you, and, as you can see, nobody’s jar of hair gel ever turns out to be a deadly instrument of mass destruction.
Then there are random alarm generators at certain airports. Every time one of those goes off, the passenger pats his or her pockets down claiming things like, “Oh, maybe it’s my…nipple ring?” “I’m on my period, is that it?” Or “I have absolutely nothing. This is fascist.”
Sometimes when bag checks are called, there is the occasional married couple who uses the bag check as an excuse to continue some heated marital dispute that has clearly been going on for quite some time. I’m telling you, a psychologist would love to be a TSA officer for maybe just a week or so. An example of a Bag Check with Acute Marital Distress Transference Syndrome (BCWAMDTS) might go something like this.
TSA X-RAY OPERATOR: Bag check!
TSA BAG CHECKER: Whose bag is this? I have to take a look through…
WIFE PASSENGER: Oh God. It’s the goddamn lingerie, Bob. You made me bring the goddamn lingerie and now the TSA’s gon’ take it from us and everything else all on account of you don’t find me attractive anymore unless I’m dressed like some goddamned SLUT.
HUSBAND PASSENGER: Now hold on just a minute there, just calm down, Patsy.
WIFE PASSENGER: NO. I will not calm down! I tried to tell you the TSA don’t let people bring no goddamn fancy lingerie and such on no goddamn planes after 9/11 and now they’re gonna’ take everything away from us!
HUSBAND PASSENGER: Then we’ll just give up the goddamn thong in the name of freedom, Patsy. Be quiet, woman.
TSA BAG CHECKER: Ma’am, it’s not the lingerie, I assure you…
WIFE PASSENGER: The hell it ain’t! Then what is it?
HUSBAND PASSENGER: Calm the hell down, Patsy! Now this here officer just said it ain’t the lingerie, and the way I see it, there ain’t nothin’ wrong with a woman getting’ dolled up every now and then for her man! If it is the lingerie then we’ll just have to surrender it and per-se-vere in the name of this here goddamn terror fight we got goin’ on for these here stars ‘n bars, baby! Now lower your voice, woman!
WIFE PASSENGER: Well maybe if you’d snuck that other woman of yours on the plane like you do everywhere else you wouldn’t need me to dress up in no lingerie to make you forget about who I really am and this here goddamn ex-i-stential terrorist threat wouldn’t be robbin’ us of our goddamn suitcase now would it!? Looks like the goddamn terrorists won and she’s a twiggy 23 year old bitch who didn’t never go through the pain of bearing your three fuckin’ children, now how ‘bout THAT Bob?
Sometimes, I guess, people really do know what it is, on some Freudian level or another. Also, it must be noted that occasionally, the theatrical performances are given by the passengers, and not the screeners.