Your Boxing Day TSA Report

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creative-ideas-for-cupcakes-chocolate.jpg1) Thanks to all who sent pointers to last week's story of a woman whose cupcake was seized by an alert TSA screener in Las Vegas because its frosting was "gel-like" and therefore a potential threat. The woman, Rebecca Hains, was quoted as saying:

"The TSA supervisor, Robert Epps, was using really bad logic - he said it counted as a gel-like substance because it was conforming to the shape of its container."

"We also had a small pile of hummus sandwiches with creamy fillings, which made it through, but the cupcake with its frosting was apparently a terrorist threat...I just don't know what world he was living in," said Hains, speaking of the TSA officer.

Hains said she had flown from Boston to Las Vegas with two cupcakes without any problems....
"You'd expect them to be consistent. If they're doing what they claim to be doing and actually protecting travelers, they would be applying their rules using critical thinking. He gave no indication that really thought the cupcake was a threat."

That the story involves cupcakes -- and unthreatening hummus! -- makes it seem preposterous. But of course the underlying illogic and random-seeming combo of hyper-vigilance and "oh, never mind" attitudes defines "security theater" more generally.

2) Thanks to Steve Clemons of the Atlantic for his reference to my ongoing TSA struggles, plus his explanation of the bigger picture.

3) Thanks to Charles Mann, frequent contributor of excellent Atlantic articles over the years, for a piece in the new Vanity Fair about security theater, featuring a trip through an airport with Bruce Schneier, the man generally credited with coining the term "security theater." The Atlantic's Jeff Goldberg took a memorable similar trip a few years ago. Mann's conclusion:

To walk through an airport with Bruce Schneier is to see how much change a trillion dollars can wreak. So much inconvenience for so little benefit at such a staggering cost.

4) Thanks to Michael Grabell and Pro Publica for an ongoing series of tough investigative articles about the TSA's rushed approval of the new "enhanced" X-ray scanning machines. I'd meant to write about Grabell's first story when it appeared; it emphasized how these machines were being installed and used on a broad scale, far ahead of epidemiological data about possible radiation risks. Eg:

[An X-ray scanner's] inventor, Steven W. Smith, assured the panelists [back in 1998] that it was highly unlikely that the device would see widespread use in the near future. At the time, only 20 machines were in operation in the entire country.

"The places I think you are not going to see these in the next five years is lower-security facilities, particularly power plants, embassies, courthouses, airports and governments," Smith said. "I would be extremely surprised in the next five to 10 years if the Secure 1000 is sold to any of these."

Today, the United States has begun marching millions of airline passengers through the X-ray body scanners, parting ways with countries in Europe and elsewhere that have concluded that such widespread use of even low-level radiation poses an unacceptable health risk.

Grabell has followed up with reports on new testing of the machines' safety, a delay in those tests, and doubts about their efficacy in detecting real risks.

5) I still have not consented to go through the "enhanced" machines, not even once, even though one time I nearly missed a plane as a result and the last few times at Washington Dulles Airport it has led to unpleasantness with the screening staff. Five percent of the reason I always "opt-out" is vague "why do I want any more radiation exposure from rush-tested machines?" concern. Another 25 percent is my offense at the humiliating hands-over-the-head posture the suspect traveler is made to assume. The remaining 70 percent is my own little protest against this latest step in security theater, shady business circumstances and all (as explained in the first Pro Publica piece).

As detailed in the crowd-sourced TSA Status site, the depressing Dulles Airport uses both metal detectors and X-ray scanners. I always edge to the side of the line where most people are fed through the metal detectors (to which I have absolutely no objection). But on all of my last six trips out of Dulles, at the last minute I've been waved "randomly" for an X-ray body scan, after the 20 or 30 people ahead of me in line all went through the metal detector.

I do know it's purely random and just a bad string of luck. Still, grrrr. I always say "Opt Out" when steered toward the X-ray scanners. Then the Dulles TSA team sighs and rolls its eyes, and it goes downhill from there. One time I made the mistake of saying, "Look, all these people in front of me went through the metal detector, I'm happy to do that too." "Are we going to have a problem here?" Agent Z... of Dulles replied, officiously and ominously, in the tone you'd recognize from countless cop or prison movies. And on to the frisk.

On this most recent occasion, I had to go through the metal detector to get to the area where the opt-out pat-downs were run. That wasn't double-screening for safety purposes; it was just an accident of layout. I bit my tongue rather than say, "Look, I've just been screened the same way as the previous big queue of people, plus you see from my ticket that I've flown a zillion miles per year for decades. What the hell is the point here?" To be clear: I did not say that! But when Agent O... of Dulles asked, in the tones someone might use on discovering a concealed grenade, "Why is your belt still on?" I couldn't help it. Before my brain could exercise censorship, my mouth went ahead and said: "I just went through the metal detector with it on and it didn't set off an alarm. So what could possibly be the problem with my belt?" Agent O.. switched instantly into "we do have a problem here" mode. I was made to walk back out through the metal detector; take off my belt; put it in a little dish to go through the screening machine; walk through the metal detector again myself (and again with no alarms); and after that go for the pat-down. And then I saw the man-handling of a three-year-old disabled child from another country, who had a feeding tube attached to his body. This breeds contempt for authority, and should.

I'm usually a go-with-the-flow guy when it comes to officials trying to do their job. And I should say that at some airports -- recently BWI -- I have noted how hard the local TSA team seemed to be trying to avoid the worst excesses of security-theater-martinet-dom. But now I'm thinking of a novel but powerful argument for the Obama re-election campaign. They could say that if you send him back for another term, and he's free of re-election fears, he might dare do something about the travesty of American values the modern TSA has become.


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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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