Thanks TSA!

Seattle_Ticket_1

PHOTO BY COLIN RIGLEY

Until two weeks ago I had never been selected for a so-called random security screening by TSA. I endured the same long lines and humiliating procedures as the rest of my fellow passengers, right down to taking off my shoes, spreading my legs and placing my hands on my head like a criminal, and making a point of arriving early to the airport to ensure that I didn’t miss my flight because I was in line at TSA.

 

And I didn’t enjoy it. Setting aside the fact that TSA is notoriously incompetent—I’ve heard stories (and by that I mean read articles from legitimate sources) of undercover agents sneaking bombs aboard, people accidentally boarding planes with guns, and a 70% failure detection rate that the TSA disputes but hasn’t actually countered with hard data—it’s also damn unpleasant. And it’s not as though airlines need help making flying stressful and inconvenient. Between the cost of flying and the fact that you count yourself lucky to arrive where you paid to arrive at the time you were told to arrive with the luggage you probably paid additional fees to check onto the plane, just setting foot in an airport is enough to make me sick.

 

I mean that literally. I have a stomach condition and there are certain stress triggers that result in an hours-long vomiting marathon. I’ve identified three triggers that result in automatic vomiting so far and airports are one of them. I’m a notoriously punctual person who tends to operate on the assumption that if I follow the rules, everything will work out fairly. Usually this works out OK. But not at airports. I’ve endured lost luggage, late flights, and cancelled flights. But who hasn’t? My travel stories are pretty standard for someone with any amount of experience flying in the post-9/11 world.

 

My boyfriend and I booked a New Year’s Eve flight to Seattle to check out the city. We would be there for four and a half days and fly home in time to return to work on Monday. Given that our last few flights were international and involved multiple layovers, often in places with languages we did not understand, we were sort of looking forward to a relaxing travel experience. We wouldn’t need to exchange money. We had laptops and cell phones. We even had a hotel and rental car booked at our destination.

 

We checked in at the self-service check-in machines, one of which was not functioning but not labeled as such so Colin spent about 10 minutes cursing at it before another became available. Then we waited in line to check out bags with the Alaska Airline agent. As soon as she swiped my boarding pass into the machine, I knew something was wrong. Her eyes got big and she gave me a weird look. I had been “randomly” selected for special security screening from TSA. She was quick to inform me that Alaska Airlines didn’t have anything to do with it. Apparently my boarding pass was just marked that way.

 

Then Colin got to the counter and received the same message. We were both “randomly” selected for additional screening, emphasis on random. He’d never been selected for random screening before either, and we found it weird and unlikely that we both happened to be randomly selected. We especially found the timing strange since we’d just gotten back to Turkey about a month and a half before the trip. I tried to ask whether the fact that we had been selected was linked to our trip to Turkey. Again, the woman insisted that it was random.

 

Because our flight was domestic, we had arrived a little more than an hour before our flight believing that we would have plenty of time. Instead, I found myself pulled aside by a woman who put her hands into my pants, touched just about every inch of my body including a long and lingering search of my breasts, and then tore apart our bags, swabbing everything they encountered and putting the swabs through a machine that I assume detected residue linked to explosive devices. A few feet away from me, Colin started singing the American anthem while he was being searched.

 

We spent the entire trip wondering if we would be subjected to the same treatment on the way back; suspecting it was not random, as we had been told; and knowing that if we were both once again “randomly” selected on out return trip that we had been flagged for our trip to Turkey. Which I didn’t mind. It makes sense that a country that is the focus of so much attention from actual terrorists might warrant some concern from the TSA. What I resent is being lied to by a government agency.

 

I realize how incredibly naive that sounds. Government agencies lie to us all the time. I know that. But that doesn’t mean I appreciate or approve of this fact. All this hot air about protecting our great and democratic nation from terrorists who hate our freedom only applies if we have a government and country worth protecting. A government that lies to its citizens, that deprives them of their liberty under the pretense of making them more safe, is not worth protecting. Again, I recognize how naïve this all probably sounds. The sad reality is that I’m an idealist and when a government agency runs its hands all over an idealist’s body and rummages through her possessions while blatantly lying to her, she’s not going to happy.

 

We woke up the morning of our return flight at 4 a.m. We were expecting to be subjected to special security screening and gave ourselves an extra hour to ensure we could get publicly groped and make our flight on time.

 

Once again, the Air Alaska agent scanned our boarding passes. Once again we were informed we had been selected for “random” security screening. She started to explain the process and I stopped her, politely. “We’ve been to Turkey. We’re apparently on some kind of list. We know the process.”

 

“It’s random,” she told me sternly.

 

“I know that’s what TSA says, but that’s bullshit,” I told her. I wasn’t yelling, or even speaking in a hostile tone. I was merely being matter of fact. This woman either believed the TSA party line about the searches being random against overwhelming evidence that it wasn’t or she knew it wasn’t random and was simply lying because her job. Given the choice between being dim-witted and a liar, I guess I’d rather be a liar and I suspect that’s what she was. Still, my beef was with the TSA.

 

The Alaska Airlines agent did warn us to make sure the TSA stamped our boarding passes after we were searched. Apparently a woman earlier that morning had gone through the screening and proceeded to her gate only to be turned away because TSA didn’t stamp her boarding pass. She missed her flight and was angry—legitimately so—and apparently told the airline agent TSA had “molested” her. The TSA agent sneered that her language was even stronger than mine—a nice passive aggressive little dig about my use of the word “bullshit.” Personally, I’m more offended by the idea of a government agency lying to people on a massive scale than by the notion of a reasonably frustrated person using the word “bullshit.” I’ve written blogs about my frustration with people who are more concerned by a word than by people’s actions.

 

We got to the security check and just asked them to be as quick as possible. Colin blew raspberries while he was being groped by the male TSA agent and I chatted with mine. She started to go through the whole routine about whether I had any sensitive areas on my body, whether I needed a private screening room.

 

“Just get it over with as quickly as possible,” I told her. “I’ve been through this before. I went to Turkey so I guess I’m on some kind of list.”

 

“Oh,” she said. “Did you enjoy it?”

 

I actually liked her. She didn’t lie to me. Like Colin and I, she seemed to be trying to make the best of an unpleasant situation.

 

I figured our TSA ordeal was over when they stamped our boarding passes and let us claim our possessions. We got in line to board the plane. Everything seemed reasonably normal, for an airport. I handed the boarding agent my ticket, she scanned it, and a red light literally started flashing. I panicked.

 

“Have you been to Canada?” she asked me.

 

“No. I came from San Francisco,” I replied. It was 7:30 a.m. and I was completely disoriented. Eventually, she returned my passport and ticket and let me board. But I can’t stop wondering what would have happened if I had answered “yes.”

 

Colin and I had talked about visiting Vancouver. It’s a mere two hours from Seattle and a beautiful city. We ultimately decided we didn’t have time, but what if we had decided otherwise? Would I have been allowed to board the plane? And what would my going to Canada prove? It was just one more frustrating question about a frustrating process conducted with no transparency or integrity.

 

I should have been informed that if I went to Turkey I’d be on a special screening list for the next year, the next five years, the rest of my life, however long it might be. It wouldn’t have stopped me from going, but at least I’d understand what’s going on. I should have been informed that a subsequent trip to Canada would be sufficient to land me a cell in good ol’ Guantanamo—that bastion of American integrity.

 

But I don’t know. All I know is that I’ve flown dozens of times both domestically and internationally and never been subjected to any additional attention from TSA. Then I traveled to Turkey with my boyfriend. And on the two flights since that trip we’ve both been subjected to additional screenings which every airline and TSA agent insisted were “random.” I can either believe them, despite the fact that it’s ludicrous that anyone of even meager intelligence would believe them. Or I can plan to arrive early for all my future flights, to pack my carry-on knowing that agents are going to scour through it, to mentally steel myself against the fact that a woman is going to stick her hands down the waistband of my pants. Until I’m no longer deemed a threat, at which point flying will return to being only a moderate inconvenience until I travel to some country that once again outs TSA on high alert. At which point an airline attendant will grimace when she scans my boarding pass, offer a fake smile, and inform me that I’ve been “randomly” selected for additional security screening. I just hope when that day comes that I’ve remembered to stock my carry-on bag with loaded mousetraps.

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Comments

  1. Don’t feel bad! You are not alone! :/ I always get checked.

  2. There is little factual basis for what TSA does. Some of us do not allow our government to treat us this way, on such false pretenses, and have altered our lifestyles accordingly.

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