A Black Woman’s Hair Becomes Target in TSA’s Security Theater

[Originally published August 10, 2013]

OK, so the original title of the story is “Black Women’s Hair Becomes Target of TSA’s Security Theater,” but I couldn’t find it within myself to reproduce that level of sensationalism. In short, MSNBC host and author Melissa Harris-Perry has discovered that the full body scanners put bounding boxes on her braids every time she goes through, necessitating an idiotic TSA “resolution inspection” of her braids. It’s not just black women’s braids that cause this; the shitty L3 scanners cause everyone with braids or similarly dense hairdos to receive such an inspection. Actually, the L3 scanners show head-area anomalies on about 1 out of every 8 passengers, for various mysterious reasons.

As a TSA screener, this was one of the things I hated most when working the body scanners. Inspections such as the hairdo check usually represent the quintessential example of security theater at the TSA in this, the current Body Scanner Era. Watch a TSA agent resolve a hairdo alarm, and you’ll see a hell of a piece of security theater in action, almost every time. What the agent will usually do is put on a show of looking at the passenger’s head from all angles (knowing that his or her supervisor may be watching, and that the performance is on-camera) maybe do a little theatrical pat-down of the hairdo, and then let the passenger go his or her way.

The ridiculous part of all this is that the hair is usually either A) Obviously just a case of braided or accessorized hair that anyone can instantly see is not concealing anything, and doesn’t actually require any more attention than a glance or B) A nearly impenetrable fortress of an elaborate hairdo that could not actually be cleared of containing a threat short of asking the passenger to pull apart the hairdo on the checkpoint.

An example of the above Type A hairdo is this:

Exhibit A

An example of the Type B hairdo is this:

Exhibit B. She’s taken. Sorry, guys.

Women on their way to or coming back from weddings or fancy events are the most common cases of hairdos that trigger an anomaly on the scanner that can’t actually be cleared of containing a threat, short of asking the woman to pull the hairdo apart. But the majority of TSA screeners want to avoid the appearance of being total assholes whenever possible, believe it or not, dear passengers, and so restrict themselves to putting on a little security theater show of looking at the hairdo with great concentration (presumably with Superman x-ray vision that trumps the full body scanner’s shitty x-ray vision) and then doing a gentle blue-gloved massage of the hair.

For a reasonable TSA screener working with an idiot of a TSA screener on the full body scanner, the most frustrating thing is when encountering the A type hair style– a case of hair that doesn’t even warrant more than a quick look. Watch the two TSA screeners working the full body scanners, and you may see one of them actually take a full 30 seconds to peer deeply into the mysterious, impenetrable abyss of potential smuggled terror that is this:

“Is there a gun in there? A tool kit? A stick of dynamite? What does that clever lil’ terrorist think she’s trying to get past this here full body scanner?” TSA Officer Fife, High Sheriff of Jackass City will think, wasting 30 seconds of everyone’s life by pausing the whole full body scanner operation to investigate the situation. (Sometimes, in all fairness, it’s a case of a recently hired TSA screener who doesn’t know any better, or who is scared that one of the idiotic managers or supervisors that he or she has to deal with is hovering nearby or watching the checkpoint on remote camera, waiting to write a screener up for not dancing a little theatrical routine around a girl such as the one in the above picture.)

The worst thing for a TSA screener who tries to use common sense is that some of the mentally challenged TSA screeners out there will actually run to the supervisor’s podium and lobby to get a screener written up for daring to let Little Miss Exhibit A pass without a serious looking-over and scalp massage. When this happens, a climate of fear reigns over the full body scanner operation, everything slows down, and the lines get longer, as even the TSA screeners who try to use common sense are dragged into putting on elaborate security theater shows, for the satisfaction of the lowest common denominator

But wait, there’s more. (I apologize, dear passengers, but working the full body scanner with an idiot of a co-worker was one of the things I hated most about working at the TSA toward the end of my time there. No, actually, it was the number one thing I hated about it.)

The absolute, number one, most idiotic example of security theater that anyone, absolutely anyone, can witness at nearly any time at a TSA checkpoint’s full body scanner is this: when a TSA screener investigates a passenger’s watch after the full body scanner indicated an anomaly on the passenger’s wrist. Want to know why it’s idiotic? Sure, I’ll tell you.

The best theoretical reason they’re fondling your watch is due to the possibility that it might be modified for use as a timer in an IED. Fair enough, I guess, sort of: Ramzi Yousef tried that in 1994 on PA Flight 434. So TSA screeners invariably put on a little show of sort of peeking under the watch when you come through the scanner, to make sure there’s no terror under there, and then, satisfied that your watch is terror-free, let you continue on as clear. But do you know what the one thing that the average Joe Shmoe airplane-obsessed terrorist isn’t going to need? That’s right, a timer. Want to know why? Because HIS FUCKING THUMB-AND-MENTAL-COUNTDOWN-TO-ETERNAL-MARTYRED-GLORY IS GOING TO BE THE TIMER.

And do you know what the one thing that a brilliant terrorist who figured out a way to use the watch that he’s wearing to double as a timer on an airplane-planted IED is going to have? A plain-looking watch that’s either imperceptibly modified, or that he’ll modify after passing through security. So do you know what you just cheerfully and confidently let pass through security with your diligent, theatrical, by-the-book inspection of a passenger’s watch, TSA screener Barney Fife? One of the components of a brilliant terrorist’s IED, because IT’S A FUCKING DIGITAL WATCH; IT CAN ONLY EVER BE SO “CLEAR” IN THE POWER SUPPLY+ INITIATOR+ EXPLOSIVES+ SWITCH/TIMER= AN IED EQUATION.


To close out Kip Hawley week: As a fomer TSA employee, I can emphatically say that Hawley and the New York Times were definitely right about one thing: “TSA officers need to be encouraged to think on their own, not disciplined for it.”


If you’re on Twitter, so am I.

Related TSA articles from my archives:

“I’ve Been a Current TSA Employee, Not a Former TSA Employee, All Along.”

“The Most Awkward Moment for a TSA Screener.”

“No, You Don’t Know What It Is”

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