by Rhona Mahony. Last Thursday, December 5, I brought five ounces (140 grams) of old-fashioned black gunpowder to San Francisco airport. I also brought along a boarding pass for United flight 720 to Denver that I had created at home, in an computer art program. TSA agents accepted the boarding pass. They also took no notice at all of the gunpowder. Accepting the boarding pass was reasonable. Boarding passes that we design and print at home look just like ones designed by the airlines that we print at home. I had thought, though, that I might elicit a short conversation about the gunpowder. Mind you, I had packed the stuff safely. It was in three separate jars: one of charcoal, one of sulphur, and one of saltpetre (potassium nitrate). Each jar was labeled: Charcoal, Sulphur, Saltpetre. I had also thoroughly wet down each powder with tap water. No ignition was possible. As a good citizen, I had packed the resulting pastes into a quart-sized “3-1-1″ plastic bag, along with my shampoo and hand cream. This bag I took out of my messenger bag and put on top of my bin of belongings, turned so that the labels were easy for the TSA inspector to read.
It was my suitcase that caught the attention of the TSA fellow watching the baggage X-ray monitor. He frowned. Then he waved over a stocky TSA co-worker. The co-worker picked up my suitcase and carried it down to me at the end of the conveyor belt. “Anything sharp or fragile in here?,” he asked. “Not that I can think of,” I said. What had the first fellow seen? Oh ho, the co-worker opened my suitcase and found my bamboo flutes. I had packed the flutes because I had planned to say, at the beginning of a conversation, that my unusual pastes were primitive pigments. I was going to paint the flutes with them. I hadn’t realized that on the X-ray monitor, flutes might look like clubs. The TSA forbids clubs in carry-on bags. The TSA fellow solemnly looked through each end of each flute. While he squinted, I packed my 3-1-1 bag back into my messenger bag. Oops, a snag. He couldn’t see through the third flute. It was still a stalk of raw bamboo. I hadn’t yet broken open the nodes. He picked up my whole suitcase and walked away. I didn’t see the consultation. When he came back, he wiped down the inside of my suitcase compartment with a round, white pad. He fed the pad through a machine. I suppose the machine’s purpose was to detect…explosives? Wow, I hadn’t anticipated this thoroughness. The machine sniffed, assayed, calculated…and was happy with the pad. I was free to go to Gate 82.
Janet Napolitano, Are You There?
Do TSA agents learn in their training that charcoal plus sulphur plus saltpetre make gunpowder? Don’t they watch the classic Star Trek episode (“Arena”) in which Captain Kirk improvises a cannon by finding just the right minerals–guess which ones–to mix up an explosive propellant on that distant rocky planet? Sure, my constituents were packed separately. Constituents, though, can be mixed. Sure, my constituents were wet. The TSA, though, didn’t know what they were wet with. It could have been alcohol.
It wasn’t, because I care about safety. Nothing in my past suggests otherwise. That’s why it doesn’t make sense to search me thoroughly, or superficially. And that’s why the TSA agents usually rotely follow the rules of their pantomime, rather than using educated judgment. Educated judgment is too tiring, too expensive, and needed elsewhere.
May I suggest that our new Secretary of Homeland Security reconsider the billions allocated in the 2009 budget to the Transportation Security Agency and its 48,000 employees? Many thoughtful travelers know that the rigamarole we go through on the way to our airline gates is a show to comfort the ignorant, to keep them buying airline tickets. Tell the truth, save our time, save our money. Let us resume our old carefree stroll to the gate. Spend some of the $3 billion on real police work to catch the bad guys. That would make us safer. Maybe those 48,000 TSA patriots could be put to work dismantling the wall on the border with Mexico?