In the airport with Les Misérables

95-Year-Old Vet Claims $300 Stolen During TSA Screening, Huffington Post, 4-19-12

My defense of the strategies, (not the tactics, I did not try to defend the day to day behavior of individual agents), of the National Security Administration’s travel protection force – the Transportation Security Administration – won for me no friends.  It has been pointed out vociferously to me, by numerous people, that the TSA agents are inflexible, bigots, thieves and possibly even sadists; in fact the whole process could be part of a grand plan of governmental control , intended to terrorize the traveling public; we certainly have lost some individual rights over the last ten years in the name of protecting the country from terrorists.  When presented with the details of any unpleasant encounter with the aforesaid agents it is difficult to find any basis for supporting the TSA as it presents itself to us through the personalities and behaviors of those agents.

Well, I travel a lot and have been through many different security points, and I don’t agree with your blog about feeling safer with the exaggerated security measures and rude manners of the TSA, although they have gotten better lately; the TSA has been outrageous and there has been lots of info about how they behave and what they do and lots of criticism… Sure I am glad that there are more controls for all the crazy people who get crazy ideas in their head… I was happy the TSA on my last trip were so nice about letting us through the manual check and am sure it had to do with the fact that they have been under so much heat for the bullshit and illegal off the manual stuff they pulled…There are many who say the powers pulled it off and want everyone to be afraid.

Even that email commented on the need to protect the traveling public from “crazy people.”   However, like most people, that traveler thinks the actual process goes way beyond what is needed to accomplish that.  The stories that I have heard were more about what the traveler was not allowed to bring through the security check-point than about the screening.  There were several tales of something valuable, either in monetary  or sentimental terms, that was confiscated.  In one story a bottle of perfume worth a hundred dollars was taken because the person carrying it because did not have a plastic bag for it.  The traveler complained and asked to see a supervisor – the supervisor was sympathetic and gave the traveler a plastic bag; but when she returned to agent, she was told the bottle was in the garbage and once it is in the garbage it cannot come out.  The traveler is convinced the agent then took the bottle home to use or resell.

In another case, a pair of scissors, needed medically and within the medical guidelines (the scissors had survived many previous security checks) was confiscated and thrown away – the scissors had great sentimental value to the traveler and the incident was very painful.  In this case the traveler did not think the agent had anything to gain financially, but felt he enjoyed the power of his position and like watching the travelers’ anguish over such things. It may have been a person who had suffered from discrimination in the past, or simply a sadist, the traveler did not know which, but was convinced it was one or the other.

There are thousands of incidents like that a day across the country;  any traveler could complain up the chain of command and probably with enough persistence reach the director of the agency.  Most likely, that would produce a sympathetic response and a promise to investigate.  What would the investigation produce?  Not much, certainly nothing that would satisfy the traveler making the complaint and it would not produce any real change.  Why do I think that?  It is the nature of bureaucracy, any and every bureaucracy, not just here, but everywhere.  The people at the top can be honest (or not) and set out regulations and procedures with the best of intents.  However, the regulations are implemented by thousands of other people; the worker bees.  The worker bees do not make much money, have not had long, extensive training, such as a doctor, lawyer or pilot might have, and they are subject to constant public criticism, both individually and collectively.  On top of all of that, they have bad days.  Of course, some of them are dishonest and do collect things they can make use of or resell on ebay.  Bad day, bad attitude and bad intent – it all combines to make traveling miserable.

Where he still alive today, Victor Hugo might well wish to  rewrite his famous, Les Misérables; and instead of the poor and downtrodden of Paris, the play would detail the travails of travelers and of course the villain agents in the TSA; the agents too might be the stars of the their own miserable drama, if only they had a literary champion.

No government can control all of the people it employees, not in the army, the secret service or the TSA; it can establish the best of policies, but somewhere down at the bottom of the chain of command there are people; people with all of the same vices and virtues people always have.  I wish I could think of a solution, but I can’t; still I do think traveling in general is safer because of the security procedures; not more pleasant, not more convenient and certainly not cheaper, but safer.


1 Response to “In the airport with Les Misérables”

  1. 1 Bill Hanigan April 28, 2012 at 2:21 am

    I remember an incident in Muenchen in the 60’s when a little old lady who made the mistake of crossing the path of a tram being berated by someone in uniform for not crossing the street in the proper manner. Familiar story ?
    Give an idiot a uniform and a modicum of authority and Voila !

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