Man Bites Dog Dept: Complimenting the TSA

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In the list of useful maxims-for-life -- right there alongside "always call your mother" and "always write those angry emails, but never send them" and "you'll never regret tomorrow not having that extra beer tonight" -- is "never pass up a chance to give a deserved compliment." Phony compliments are a whole different topic for another time.

Since I so often complain about the nuttiness, petty tyranny, and "security theater" mentality of the Transportation Security Administration, and since I would complain ten times more if I weren't afraid of sounding like a total (versus partial) crank, let me say something deservedly nice about a TSA experience I had today.

It was at San Diego's Lindbergh Field, which has had its rough moments on the TSA-versus-humanity front. But for me today's passage-through-security was different from any in recent memory, in that the TSA officials I dealt with seemed relaxed. There was no stentorian yelling about what to do with your computers and your shoes-and-gels. There was no one who looked like he or she was spoiling for an opportunity to show a passenger who was boss. The agents were smiling -- not because they were joking with each other and then turning to glower at the passenger/subjects, as I've seen at other airports, but in their interactions with people filing through.

And as a result, the people who were queued up behaved differently. No rolling of eyes or huffy sighing. Not even from me! Much less body-language tenseness of people preparing to endure this dismal nadir of the overall senseless humiliation of modern air travel. As I tried to think why these few minutes of my life were so different from their counterparts in other airports, I realized it was the surprisingly simple fact that the security team seemed not to be treating us like suspects. Too many TSA officials seem as if they've taken their cues on crowd-management protocol from prison movies. (Hey, I am talking about you, Washington Dulles TSA team!) The few people I dealt with today did not.

Maybe what I saw was a fluke. Friends who went through security at Lindbergh Field half an hour after I did said they'd had the usual terrible TSA experience. But my experience was good, and on the off-chance that positive responses matter, I wanted to say so.

Tomorrow: why much of the Atlantic's staff was in San Diego, and the main thing I learned while there. Teaser: It actually was encouraging!

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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