More Friendly TSA Tales—Plus, Is It Possible Ever to Change?

These are in five distinct modes. After this I will taper off for a while. Plus, there's another debate to watch!

Theme one: making the best of things.

As someone that enjoys a drink as much or more than the next guy (and is also frugalish), the fluids rules for flying were a huge bummer for me because it was my practice for morning flights to build myself a nice big bloody mary in a disposable bottle for consumption as I passed my way through the security apparatus and inevitable downtime before the flight.  Rather a good deal compared to the pathetic offerings for top dollar otherwise available to travelers.

Which brings me to my travel tip:
Minis (the tiny little liquor bottles) happen to fit into your TSA quart sized baggie and are perfectly legal to take through security. A bottle of OJ on the far side of the line and you're in screwdriver heaven.  Although, please be discrete as the US still has insane open container laws.

Which brings me to my story:
Not long after I figured out this loophole, I tossed my baggie full of minis in the x-ray bin and the TSA screener looked at them and gave me a broad grin and said, "Now there's a man 'at knows how to fly."  To which I could only grin and nod in agreement.

Theme two: don't blame the government, plus stop whining.

Because TSA is a government agency people seem to take extra delight in mocking or questioning it. It is useful to remember that we had x-rays, security, and security personnel before TSA ever existed. Some of those folks were far less trained, less professional, and far less knowledgeable than what we currently have now. For people who think this is just security theater, fair enough. But at least the cast now has better actors and the performances tend to run more smoothly.

I agree about the extra edge of anti-government hostility -- though if Wackenhut and other private firms (Blackwater! even under its new name) were back in charge, we'd have the offsetting "rent-a-cop" slurs. The X-ray point is not correct: in the old (pre-9/11) days, airports used metal-detectors only, not the "backscatter" X-ray scanners and "millimeter wave" devices that have recently been introduced.

Theme three: TSA solidarity.

As I was exiting screening this morning I overheard two agents discussing Sen. Paul and his recent "issue"(?) in TN. Their take was that he was seeking special treatment as a politician and that the TSA couldn't possibly do anything wrong. I thought this was pretty amusing and also wondered if their opinion extended to the entire organization or just to the screeners? I have never met any low level employees who ever believed that management was competent. Does the TSA defy this trend?

Theme four: We're not "in decline," we're just acting stupid.

I don't think [America's backwardness with airports and their amenities] it's a sign of a nation in decline... To me, what is striking is how deliberate it seems. I understand that the airports of poor countries often look grubby - there just isn't money around to keep them squeaky clean and well repaired all the time. In the US, it looks like the expression of a country that just can't be bothered (collectively) to have good public infrastructure. When I'm waiting in this or that line at Dulles (which I do quite a lot) I'm not thinking, "Oh no, the Chinese will have built three of these by the time I'm done here", I'm thinking, "why don't they care enough to pay for decent airports"?

Having to go through immigration and recheck your luggage so that the TSA is just the icing on the cake seems to me another symptom of this. It doesn't even serve a mock purpose (like taking off your shoes), it just doesn't make any sense at all. Surely the US government would have noticed this at some point, so why can't they be bothered to change it?

Of course I can look at this from the inside, I've lived here long enough to understand the politics and the path dependency and the odd attitudes towards anything "public". But sometimes, I just don't want to. Those are also the moments when I really hope that ten years from now, I'll still visit the US often enough, but live somewhere else.

To round this off, theme five: We can't do anything about it.

As you yourself stated: it's impossible for anyone to reduce the security theater because of the risks involved, both physical, and certainly if it was a political initiative. If President Obama even hinted publicly that he wanted to make travel more convenient by reducing TSA security, or even just supported such an idea, the Republican field would immediately pounce on that as "criminal negligence" and "exposing the American people to danger." And then if something did happen, that's it. Obama's finished. He'd have no supporters. Like the isolationists before Pearl Harbor, the minute a disaster occurs, all the people complaining about the inconvenience and humiliation would shut up immediately. Nobody is going to listen to reasonable arguments against security theater when several hundred Americans are dead.

Politicians and other leaders have nothing to gain by maintaining the current level of security, but they have everything to lose by weakening it. The trickle of gratitude that would result is not worth risking the tidal wave of condemnation if something then did occur. "And after all, the American people are safer with things as they are, inconvenient though they be, right?" goes the reasoning. So it's in everybody's interest to just keep things as they are.

The only way to do it would be to do it slowly and "anonymously" over a long period of time.

With that, it's time for another GOP debate! And, the promised SOTU notation is now done and should be posted when we get all the formatting worked out.

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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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