So I’d like to take a second to tell the world about my recent run-in with the TSA. After it happened I googled it and got a ton of hits on these forums I had no idea existed; basically traveler forums I guess where people share their horror stories and ask advice. It’s a little weird to think that these things even exist, because for any forum community to thrive there need to be several people who check and post regularly, along with a few wise members who serve as fonts of specialized knowledge that they dribble out if your post strikes their interest. I don’t know why I find the perseverance of these so difficult to swallow, considering I used to regularly check usenet groups about soundcards and graphics upgrades, etc, etc, and found nothing strange about people discussing that shit every day. This was in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Maybe it’s the fact that the internet has so much more to consume than it did when it took 2 days to download an EGA pic of some topless chick on the hood of a sports car, or a seriously impossible-to-win strip poker game. Whatevs. (Also, forget checking into usenet now. It still exists but I think most of the internet resources devoted to it are geared toward using it to download illegal shit, which I don’t actually do or condone. What a square)
This weekend I made a mad dash to the south to visit my grandfather along with my mother and a significant portion of her side of the family. Good news, he’s in his 90’s and has a full head of hair. Bad news, apparently I’ve been handling chemicals that can be used to make explosives (dear FBI/Homeland Security, please don’t add me to some watchlist just because my houseplant hobby got me searched).
So, I get to the airport super early, and enter the security line. It’s pretty short, but moving incredibly slowly. The reason why? They are making everyone in the 2 lines go through the one full-body scanner. Last time I checked in on this issue, they had declared those things unconstitutional or something, but I’m obviously out of touch. I also notice that there are maybe 10-15 security personnel in the area a-buzzin’ with activity. I see two extended searches of blonde women underway past the scanner. Whatever. I took my shoes off, emptied my pockets into my backpack, took off my belt, took out my ipad and thought about whether I wanted to opt for the extra-gropey pat down rather than subject myself to an extra dose of radiation. It only takes one free radical to start the cancer, after all. But when the moment arrived, I decided a scan would be faster, and kind of exciting. Like I would be the guy who went before Arnold in Total Recall.
So I jumped up and got scanned… It took them a while to hit the start button so I stood there like an eager puppy with my arms in the air ready to become part of science fiction, glancing around like an idiot. So then the scan happens, and I pop out the other side of the cylinder only to be halted by an aging indian man with a nervous smile and his hand out, palm toward me in the international sign for “HALT!” Ok, I said, no worries. I looked down at my socks on the dingy floor pad, and idly placed my feet in the footprints printed there.
He closed the velvet rope thing behind him and told me I had caused an alarm, so now I’d need an extended search. Huh? How so? He pointed behind be and asked if I had anything in my back right pocket. I said no and glanced back to where he was pointing. There was a screen on this side of the scanner pod thing with a generic human body, front and back, and a yellow box drawn around its back right ass cheek. Apparently there was maybe something in there. What the fuck is the point? Just check the fucking image you took, I was thinking. But knowing i was clear and wanting to convey the sense that I was a compliant, non-threatening normal guy, I said ok sure, search me all you want. And then I asked, why not just check the test, you can see everything, can’t you? He responded vaguely that it didn’t take a picture anymore, but just detected things and pointed out where they were. Huh. Right. Useful and not pointless.
Anyway, I couldn’t help but notice the guy was genuinely nervous and seemed to think I would bolt through his blockade at any minute, but he put on some gloves (i think?) and checked out the pocket. Nothing. Empty. So he patted to be sure there wasn’t anything underneath. Nothing. Then the luggage x-ray conveyor belt started backing up and shit was getting dicey. The dude behind me (by now through the scanner, squeaky clean) saw his wallet watch phone and foldin’ money get pushed off the track and started making angry sounds.
Stop the belt! MY indian jailer shouted and they hit the kill switch and shit stopped piling on top of shit. He went to assist in clearing some of the crap off the belt and asked me to point out my stuff, which i did. The whole time he kept his arm out toward me in that STOP gesture and nervously insisted that I remain behind the barrier. I wasn’t even looming. I was chilled and slouchy about 3 feet back from it. But his TSA buddies seemed to pick up on his nerves and get nervous too; there we a lot of eyes on me. He came back and told me to hold out my hands, palms up and wiped a rough paper swab across them, saying that when the scanner gives a positive, they have to test for explosives residue (test is called the ETD, you can look it up).
Let me stop here a second. Why the fuck do we get full body future-scanned and patted up and down if none of that shit actually tells the TSA if we’re a threat or not? What kind of algorithm is in that machine that it thought my “possible weapon” was in my back right pocket, which was as empty of everything as my back left? Why localize in a pre-defined “pocket area” at all? Why would a terrorist tape a bomb to such an obvious and easily searchable area in the first place?! Clearly the machine has some culturally derived predetermined assumptions built into its scanner/reporting and I think that’s a cause for concern in itself. Incidentally all the “finds” i witnessed were located in typical pocket locations: right breast pocket, front pockets, etc. Never once did it ping “inner thigh” or “left torso.” Not so useful if it’s tied to pre-defined regions, I say.
Anyway, he swiped the hands and walked over to a machine and held it over some area of it… nothing was inserted into anything. A very loud beep drew attention from about 5 of the nearby security dudes and the tension level went up palpably. Old indian geezer was pretty freaked out. I was getting a little nervous despite knowing 100% that I had not touched explosives, never had any, never touched any, and certainly had none in my bag or on my person. I couldn’t help but begin to imagine what a bunch of trigger happy skittish underpaid undertrained yokels would do if the false positives continued. [you can search for a list of substances that will trigger a positive reading, but it doesn’t exist. The closest I can get to a list is glycerin-containing lotions, heart medication, most types of fertilizer, guns, fireworks, etc., but there are some interesting stories of people discovering weird shit sets it off, like waterproof film bags. I have no idea what I could have touched that might set it off, unless plant fertilizer stays in your skin for 3 days]
I was informed that because I got a positive on that test, that I would be subject to further examination, and lead to a seat off to the side of the main action. A doughy white dude brought my shit over and fed me some bland bullshit about the search he was about to do, mentioning the underwear bomber, clearly improvising based on his own understanding of his responsibilities. Off script, I’d say. Which of course made me more nervous. It didn’t help that everyone around was fairly vague and non-specific about what was happening. It was almost like they thought that telling me too much about what they were going to do to me would tip me off and right then and there I’d trigger my nefarious scheme of death and destruction. It creeped me the fuck out, as did this dude’s running commentary on what he was finding in my bag: “Ipad, huh? So you swallowed the Kool-Aid already, eh?” Already? What? Jesus… a Best Buy Geek Squad flunky is rifling through my wallet and underwear and what, is he taking extra time with my condoms? OH god.
Of course they didn’t find anything. Done? No.
An older version of that guy came over and told me to follow him. Wait wait wait. Hold on one second, I said, knowing I was near their supervisor – the one agent who seemed to have a normal personality. I intend to comply, I said, but I want to know what’s happening. Every word I say seems to amp the tension in the TSA people around me. I see some odd looks from agents by the scanner and body language is screaming “ready to pounce”
It was explained to him already, one guy said, presumably to the supervisor. I notice that noone is actually talking to me, which gives me a serious case of heebs. Dehumanize your victim and you’re capable of serious inhumanity, was running through my gut. I say listen, no one said anything about going somewhere else. That’s freaking me out. I need you to talk me through it.
“Follow me and I’ll explain the procedure”
No offense, but I want to hear about it here in the open because like I said, this is getting a little creepy.
So the guy launches into the whole thing I had already heard about the scanner, and never actually says specifically what will happen. But reference is definitely made to a search with the feely side of his hand, rather than the back. Early on I tried to say that I understood the scanner stuff, but–and was cut off forcefully and told to be quiet and listen. Let me emphasize that I was VERY docile and mild. In fact I’m really kind of ashamed at how well I adopted the body language and speech patterns of a submissive, broken prisoner.
Ok, so I comply and young sketchy child molester guy and old sketchy child molester guy (that is the vibe these guys gave me, with weird smiles and dead-yet-eager eyes) walk me over to a very small room the size of a closet. More creepy small talk and I try to diffuse the tension caused by my concerns with a “listen I usually expect at least a dinner and drinks before someone gets that far” joke, and it’s mildly successful. They probe into my job some (which involves the production of video), and ask some pointed questions. Not pointed questions like, hey I’m a trained security professional sussing out your cover story. But more like, hey, I might dabble a little in child porn and could use some professional advice kind of pointed questions.
After a double/triple groping-over (my cock was touched over my pants about 8 times and I’m not sure how sliding one’s hands up my inner thigh 4 times is supposed to yield better results than once or twice), the older guy announced that now he needed to test his gloves for explosives residue. Oh god. Oh god. There’s more?! This could keep going?
I think I said that I understood or something, and he added: “This is where things can get really bad for you.” Just like that. What? Really bad? Huh? You haven’t found anything? Whaaaat? All I actually said was, Oh Geez, this is getting a little ridiculous. My imagination was already threatening to overrun my calm, trapped in a tight space without shoes on, my pants barely staying up because I’m beltless and these dudes actually enjoying themselves. That was some seriously demoralizing shit.
Luckily for me that guy didn’t have any residue on his gloves and I was free to go. I felt severely demoralized, disappointed, and scared despite knowing I had done nothing wrong. I really think this kind of testing degrades the human experience and is redefining what it means to be an American in a very bad way. The only silver lining is that the intensely random nature of the selection process is resulting in just as many red-blooded salt of the earth, tax-hating republicans getting a taste of having their rights completely taken away for 30 minutes, so hopefully the reality of this shit is sinking in for a lot of people.