TSA staff are doing their job – ok?

There are quite a few things that I wouldn’t really want to do for a living, some because they usually involve moving large amounts of effluent around and a lot because it means the way in which you perform your job is potentially constantly photographed and discussed world-wide.  The advent of photo sharing sites and the age of instant communications puts almost all of us under scrutiny and someone somewhere, or maybe everyone everywhere, will take offence at the way in which we work or the actual job we are performing.  The list of jobs affected is growing: whilst it used to be say senior politicians and parking enforcement officers, almost everyone is now at risk of finding themselves front page news.  With the tendency for me-too journalism and the way in which all humans complain about everything, from the waiting times at the post office to the fact that even politicians and teachers have a private social life, the list of ‘public facing’ careers I would want has dwindled very fast.  Being a Transportation Security Officer for the TSA has now been added to my list of “it’s a rotten job and I couldn’t do it” and I have a large degree of empathy for those who do.

I fly comparatively often, both internationally and domestically on both sides of the Atlantic.  When I leave my house or hotel at the start of my journey, the one thing I expect is to arrive at the other end with my luggage and without having a nervous breakdown on the way.  A lot of other people have the same expectation and we are all reliant on a second group of others to ensure that we get there, despite the thankfully, very, very small but still significant third group who may want to interrupt our journeys, often spectacularly, to prove an ideological point or for the insurance or just because they can.  And it’s the job of the Transportation Security Officer to ensure that some homicidal maniac doesn’t succeed in his or her plan, so if the cost of my well-being en-route is walking through a security screen at the airport, then that’s fine by me, even if at that point I have to take out my laptop or give up my unopened bottle of Fuji water, because that is what everyone else has to do.

Think of the numbers involved. In 2009, there were 704,400,000 air passengers in the US alone.  The world’s 4th largest airport handles an average of 90,000 departing passengers, roughly 62 per minute.  Each one of them has to be screened, because unlike the movies, potential mass murderers don’t usually send warnings in advance and there is not a crack team of law enforcement arriving in the last few seconds to drag our miscreants off the plane or out of the terminal.  And our potential threat is not from someone conveniently dressed in a headscarf, sweating profusely and reading a religious tract, nor are they dressed in uniform and speaking with fake British-Russian-South African accents.  The threat isn’t even greater now that half the world seems to be at war with the other half: nearly 50 years ago in 1962, a family man with a young daughter bought life insurance at O’Hare International, got on board a Boeing 707 and blew it up over Missouri with 6 sticks of dynamite.  In 1969, 34 planes were hijacked to Cuba.  Which is nice if you want to see Havana, but really annoying if you were on your way to your sister’s wedding in Oakland.

So to ensure that you get to the wedding or don’t end up as just a name on a piece of granite somewhere, the governments of the world screen passengers.  And this job is entrusted to the Transportation Security Officer who is in a no win situation.  If the officer does the job proficiently and enforces the rules to the nth degree, some passenger will complain.  If the officer is trusting or deemed not to be diligent, then someone will complain.  And in the same way as you don’t smoke behind the school gym because that’s the first place the teachers look, any potential hijacker or homicidal maniac with a fake British-Russian-South African accent will ask the sweet little old lady or some gap toothed little three year old child to carry his weapon of choice.  And then, because the poor Transportation Security Officer double checks the little old lady or the three year old child, because he knows that our homicidal maniac with a fake British-Russian-South African accent will not carry the weapons himself, the Transportation Security Officer ends up on YouTube or on the front page of some newspaper somewhere branded as a fascist or racist or any other pejorative term you can think off.  Just for doing the job properly.

On top of all this, he is going to face the passenger who thinks that the rules governing security screening are contrary to section 1203 chapter 87 paragraph 8 sub clause c of the 433rd amendment of the International Declaration of Human Rights or violates his or her rights as a citizen of Oliviatania or wherever.  Or they think have the body to die for and all the officer wants to do is fondle it or see it on x-ray.  So they decide to make a protest, armed with video camera phones on record and the news-desk on speed dial.  And they invariably do it in the line I am in together with the other 62 people a minute who needs to clear the security point in order to get to their gate.  The Transportation Security Officer has to put up with this – and still do the job – whilst everyone hates him or her and is just waiting for their three minutes of fame on the front page. 

Some friends of mine were flying from Los Angeles to London a couple of years ago with their child and a stroller.  As they passed through security, the stroller was given a 20 minute inspection for contraband.  They didn’t complain, because like most people they could see the same thing as the Security staff – that if they were going to hide something, use the stroller not their bodies.  Or they could place it in their baby’s food or diapers.  Because that thought wouldn’t have occurred to anyone else with real evil in mind would it?  So my friends did not object and did not make a fuss, just carried on with their journey feeling a little bit safer that there was less likelihood of ending up as collateral damage in someone else’s war and that they would get to Heathrow without a detour to Cuba.  They even discovered what their baby’s food actually tasted of as well. 

I cannot see that flying is a human right, but if it is, then accept the rules.  You accept that you cannot smoke on the aircraft, so accept that you go through a security screen at the airport.  And expect that if your watch or the keys in your pocket sounds an alarm, or even if you fit the description of a known miscreant, some poor TSO will be asked to investigate.  I am sure that given the choice, some of the Officers would prefer moving large amounts of effluent over standing in a depressing airport terminal and putting up with the thousands of impatient, surly and downright rude passengers who pass the security gate every day.  Especially when they have their videos on record looking for an excuse to sue the government or someone weighing 300lbs and smelling like rotting cheese needs to be patted down.  But more importantly, if you do want to make a fuss, give me a call first to make sure that I am not flying that day and likely to end up waiting with in line with a hundred others for your fifteen minutes of fame to be over.


About cryptothinker

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