Saturday, May 5, 2007

Lady Jane's Run-In With the TSA

Megan McArdle, aka, Jane Galt had a bit of a run-in with airport security which she was nice enough to blog about. It seems that she wanted to bring home a few travel-sized containers of shampoo and such, but she had a bit of a snag: she hadn't acquired the requisite Ziploc bag, and the screeners made it clear: no baggie, no carry. As Megan noted, shampoo doesn't represent an independent security if it's not in a baggie -- the sole purpose of the Ziploc bag is to make it easier to inspect. Megan offered to put the offending soaps in some other sort of bag, but the screener apparently lacked the discretion or judgment to accept this offer, and so, her shampoo had to be abandoned.

Megan is offended by this rigid application of rules in a context in which they make no sense:

It's not that I particularly mind the loss of a travel size sleek 'n shine shampoo set. But I resent being treated to rule applications so blind that they zip past moronic and straight into The Kafka Zone. And I suspect that they are so moronically applied because we treat the TSA people like morons. How low does one's IQ have to be to indicate that one cannot comprehend the security purpose, and limits, of a Ziploc baggy? Whatever the cutoff, I am sure that this woman was above it. But hey, terrorism! So we create a bunch of silly rules, and then demand that our silly TSA people follow them blindly . . . and we all go merrily down the road to airport hell together.

Megan, we treat TSA screeners like morons because some of them are morons. Oh, not all of them, or even most. But, predictably, some of the people we hire for this (let's face it) really tedious job are going to be morons. Lest any screeners read this and offended, note the word "some." Some will be of ordinary intelligence; some may even be of above-average intelligence. But, predictably, some will be morons. I will say I know one airport screener, and, well, he's a pretty dull fellow. But the rest are probably smarter.

And so, rather than rely upon their discretion, intelligence, and judgment -- which, predictably, will be lacking in some cases -- we give them clear, rigid orders. Some of which, inevitably, will be stupid. But if you start letting them apply the rules in accordance with their understanding of the reason for each particular rule, well, somebody might make a stupid decision and some contraband might get through. Which could, theoretically, lead to trouble. (How much damage somebody could actually do with a pair of scissors in the post-9/11 world is a different issue.)

Moreover, if you allow screeners to apply their independent judgment, you will necessarily have a certain degree of disparity in how passengers are treated. Maybe one screener is smarter than another, more able to discern the purpose behind the Ziploc-bag rule. Maybe one is a jackbooted thug too dumb to land a job as a potbellied small-town Sheriff who applies every rule as rigidly as possible out of sheer sadistic glee. Maybe the guy next to him lacks the energy and just waves everybody by. But whatever the source of the differences, if you allow screeners latitude to exercise judgment, you will get differences.

In differences lie lawsuits. If it so happens that a tall, elfin, good-looking white female blogger is allowed to pass through security unhindered without the proper Ziploc bag, the Muslim fellow who got a different screener will inevitably complain when the screener insists on a proper baggie. Which will lead to a nasty discrimination lawsuit. Remember the flying Imams?

Also, in a purely practical sense, I don't want to be waiting in line behind the person who is rules-lawyering the TSA screener. For that matter, I don't want to be in the line when twenty people ahead of me are doing the rules-lawyering, many of them in a less sensible manner than Ms. McArdle.

Now, those who complain that our current regime is nothing more than "security theater" have a point. I think that the TSA should try to keep bombs, guns, and swords off of airplanes. If, in the post-9/11 world, somebody can hijack an airplane with box cutters or a pair of scissors, then we deserve to lose. But argue that with the idiots making the rules, not the idiots behind the x-ray machine. After all, as Megan observed, they don't have a choice.


gknolan1 said...

Please allow me to give you a prospective from a "moronic screener". We are just like any other employee in any other job in the world. We are paid to take orders from higher ups. Be upset all you want about your precious little $.99 travel size shampoo. Throw a fit all you want when you lose it because however moronic it may seem, you feel like you are beyond the rules. It is o.k. because I deal with people like you every single day I go to work. All the while you act like a five year old who pouts over being told no by his parent, I still do my job to keep you and your family safe. I am just a moron who cares.

cheerful iconoclast said...

Hey, thanks for your comment, gk. Nice of you to stop by. Hope you continue to read the blog and make comments.

However, that said, perhaps you should have read my post with a litle more care, because you made a number of errors.

First, I didn't lose my travel-size shampoo -- Megan McCardle, aka, Jane Galt, did. I was responding to her post.

Second, I didn't say that all, or even most screeners are morons. I said that some were morons, while others were of normal intelligence, and some were of above-average intelligence.

Finally, I said that it made sense to have uniform policies -- in which screeners, as you say, take orders from higher-ups.

As I said, complaints about the rules -- some of which I genuinely think are stupid -- ought to be directed to the folks who make the rules, not the folks in the line.

Midwest TSA Officer (not screener) said...

I will make this simple and just respond in the order of the not so inteligent or informed blog above.

To start I would like to clear something up, we are no longer screeners. Congress, last year changed our titles to "Officer". Now that may not be a big deal to you but I am pretty sure if you where a lawyer you wouldn't want to be refered to as an accountant.

First off the ziplock bag has nothing to do with ease of screening. I don't care what any "moronic screener" may have told you. It is for the purpose of limiting the overall quantity of liquids, gels and pastes that one can bring on and airplane. This info is posted on the "3-1-1" sign at every checkpoint in the nation and many other locations in most airports. Oh, and on the official tsa web site ( if you can't use a search engine). A web site that any responsible traverler should check before a trip by plane to make sure the rules have not changed. The 3.5 oz part of the rules is simply because most travel sized containers are this size and an explosive works much differnetly if it is contain in one large container as opposed to several small ones. I won't give the details, I am sure an internet search will explain this in great detail.

Second, how are we officers supposed to know what the hell is in your travel sized bottles. Kind of the whole point of the rule in the firsts place. I believe taking a sip of the contence in question is not advisable. As far as the officer lacking the discretion or judgement to accept the counter offer, well just think about that for a second and you may realize how stupid of a request that is in the first place. Do you counter offer to the cop that just stopped you for speeding. "Sorry officer but maybe i can just give ya $50 and call it even" I think not. We as officers have this thing called a "Standard Operating Proceedure" (aka SOP). These things are pretty common in the government, maybe you have heard of em. We as officers are constantly bombarded (can you say bomb in an airport oops) with training and recertifications pounding this SOP into our brains. The rules, sorry federal regulations, that are detailed in this sop are not up for negotiation and as TSA bottom feeders we have no discretion. We can be fired for using our judgement. Our single most common complaint from passengers is the very fact that officers do use their judgement and things are never the same from airport to airport, so I ask you this....what do you want you can't have it both ways.

Next i reference this comMent in tHE original blog...."It's not that I particularly mind the loss of a travel sized sleek'n shine shampoo set. But i resent being treated to rules applications so blind that they zip past moronic and streight into The Kafka Zone". OK catch your breath and get a beer cause this response will be long. Ready? Here we go. They are not rules they are federal regulations and they will never be bent for anyone for any reason. This person obviouly must think they are better then the rules. Your not! The rules make total sense if you would spend the time to try to understand them. And if they bother you so much then I would think that would be a topic of interest. Remember the London plot of recent times that caused all this. Look it up and read about it, you may be enlightend. If you choose not to let me take this oportunity to help you learn a little something (oh no you might learn from a TSA officer be careful). Ya see a few years back there was this terrorist named Yosif (not sure of spelling). He created an IED (I suppose I should tell ya what IED is, Improvised Explosive Device, just in case you dont have CNN)now refered to by federal law enforcment as the PAL 434 IED(PamAm Airline flight #434). This IED was made from a small gatoraid bottle using an organic detonator a 9 volt battery and a wrist watch. all items very common in most carry on bags (at the time anyway). He was able to get this un-assembled IED on a plane (pal 434) assemble it and left it behind getting off at an intermediate stop. This IED detonated some time later (I believe the flight encounterd a delay and was still on the ground) but it killed passengers and was determined that had this happened in flight it likely would have downed the plane and killed everyone on board. Internet search for another called "The Bojika Plot", again teh PAL 434 IED was intended to be used but luckily was stopped before it got too far along. When they discoverd the London plot and arrested those involved they discovered what they already suspected. This "PAL 434" IED is still the prefered IED of terrorist today (outside of the Middle East). It is very difficult to detect with todays xray technology and something has to be done. Well the TSA origianlly did what England did and Japan did and many others liquids of any kind on all passenger flights. Well everyone complained about that. So unfortunatly for us officers the TSA gave what so many asked for. A compromise. Now that is not good enough either. They all say the same thing "I am not a terrorist why should I have to follow those rules, why don't you just stop mideastern men" well as simple as that seems that will never happen in a government agency and anyone who has worked for one or knows someone who does/did knows that to be fact. EVERYONE gets treated the same and has to comply with the same set of rules. I to like most wish the world today was different but it is not and it will never be. Terrorism is here to stay and we as US citizens are still primary targets. We can't just roll over and pretend it doesn't exist and that it will never effect us in some way, it will get used to it. The rules may seem silly to the uninformed but they are not. They all have a purpose. The rules are not put in pace to please anyone they are there to protect them, but sometimes those moron you refer to make rules that are intended to try to please the travelign public. What is important, customer service or security? Well let me tell ya this, to the TSA you are not a customer your are a passenger. Security is what our concern is and should be. I believe we achieve good customer service by providing security. The airline you choose to fly is your customer service not the TSA. You don't have to understand the rules, or even like them or agree with them for that matter, you just need to be a responsible passenger in todays world and know them, get to the airport on time and then for the 3 minutes it take you to clear security once you get to the front of the line, put you oponions aside and not act like your 3 years old, show the officer helping you the repect they deserve and let the officer do what he get paid to and move on to your gate. The only thing you will accomplish by doing anything else is to ruin your day the officers day, his supervisors day and the day of anyone else you choose to take your frustrations out on.

Ok next subject. another quote "Megan we treat TSA screeners like morons because some of them are morons. Oh not all of them, or even most. But, predictably, some of the people we hire for this .....blah blah blah.....are going to be morons." OK i agree there are morons employed by the TSA. I might also point out that the majority of those who grace that elite fraternity are in management (yes Kip Hawley this means you too)not officers, however I will conceed that ther are moron officers. But, I believe all employers higher morons or no one would ever get fired. I am betting even the White House has hired a moron or two. Even a moron can be found in a law firm from time to time. Lots of morons are found across the country at the front doors of that all too familiar retail establishment know as Wal-Mart. But does encountering a moron entitle you to treat them with disrespect, NO! They have a job to do just like you. In fact, I think those that do treat people that they think are below them in some way, are morons. What is the deffinition of a moron anyway? Answer me that one please.

I can tell you that it is very hard to care everyday when we have to put up with passengers that have Magen's attitude toward aviation security and even yours to a small degree. I have a thankless public service job that doesn't pay us even close to what we deserve for doing what we do and dealing with people we have to deal with. I have to remind myself every day why I care enough to protect the traveling public and I tell ya it is very hard when you have someone question rules that seem so silly to most when all they have to do is just do it and move on.

I do agree with alot of what you say in your blogs following my past referances, however I believe once again you may be misinformed about one more point you made. The TSA does primarily focus on keeping bombs, guns and swords off plains. You can now bring scissors, but box cutters will never be allowed. I do agree with you that it is very unlikey a plane will be hijack with a small knife or box cutter these days and I think you will find few to disagree with you. I will not bore you with the details (if you want them ask I will give them to you later), however I assure you the focus of the TSA is IED's, guns and other major threat items. Take my word for it, I train on it every day and I am a smart guy, much smarter then average and I have know reason to mislead you or anyone else. But in the case you don't want to believe me then just refer this whole baggie thing. It is a direct result of that focus and I hope you and your readers can now have a better understanding of this and at the very least repect the rules their next time threw a checkpoint. Hey maybe say thank you to a officer, you have no idea what tha can mean to them. Dispite popular belief we dont like taking you lifted hotel toiletries any more then you like having to give them up. We want you to know rules and be informed and prepard before you get the checkpoint. Don't be embarresed if you forget a rule, just listen to what you are being asked to do and comply. I still think most our problems come from those who think they are pretty smart and above the rules and then make a stupid mistake but rather then admit that mistake and correct it they have to try to make themselves feel better by defying the rules or questioning them and belittling the officer in front of them. DON'T. IT is OK to make a mistake or forget something. No one is perfect trust me. No one will think less of you for making that mistake in fact us as officer will respect that because we see so little of it. Be an adult and set an example for those around you. What do you think 6 year old little suzie thinks when she is behind you in line with mommy and daddy (or other adult morons that can afford to fly from time to time for that matter)and she sees you disrespecting us and the rules. . The only thing anyone does by acting in a disrepectful way is make themselves look like a moron to those passengers that do understand and know the rules. Like you stated, it slows the lines down. It also makes you look like a moron, upsets yourself, the officer, his supervisor, and others around you and for what. Becasue you forgot your stupid baggie and don't want to toss your freebie shampoo. Rediculious! OH and did I mention you can and should just put it in your checked luggage if you have some. Please don't now say "well an IED can go off in a chacked bag as easily as a carry on" that is a discusson for another day.

I know it is not you that I should be refering to by the way. When I refer to "you" I am refering to any passenger that shares this "Magen's" opinoin you are blogging about.

Sorry for all the typos, it is late, I am tired, I suck at typing and spelling and I have to get ready for another day at the airport in the morning.

Midwest TSA Officer said...

I would like to post a correction and a clarification for my last comment.

First the correction: I referanced what Federal Law Enforment agencys call the PAL 434 IED and defined its name from PanAm flight #434. That was wrong it is named from Philippines Airline flight #434. My apologies for the mistake.

Next is a clearification: When I described the IED "PAL 434" I mention it was made from a small gatoraid bottle, a 9 volt battery, organic detinator and a wrist watch. This is all true, however, This version was the one used in the Bojika plot not the Yosif bombing which was the Philippines Airline flight #434 where it got its name. This version was made with a bottle of contact lens solution (similar in size to the gatoraid bottle). Also I thought it may be important to point out that the organic detonator used with these IEDs is simply a christmas tree light bulb with the filiment exposed then it is suspened in the liquid explosive in the bottle.

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