Let me begin by saying I’m not a rabid anti-TSA person. I appreciate that it must be hard to do that job all day, and I always try my best to be as pleasant and cooperative as possible when dealing with these people.
After yesterday’s horrendous experience at the Austin airport, I’d only ask that TSA agents extend passengers like me the same courtesy.
It began as I walked through the metal detector in the TSA Pre line and an alarm sounded that indicated that I would be subjected to random screening of my bags. I have TSA Pre on my boarding pass because a couple of years ago I went through the application process for the Global Entry Program. That means I’ve had a background check, interview, and photographs and fingerprints taken by federal officials.
You’d think that would be enough to convince the government that you’re not a threat.
As I stood waiting, an officer swabbed both the bags I was carrying and ran them through his machine. A few seconds later, he said, “This bag tests positive for explosive material.”
I would have been utterly shocked by that but for the fact that twice before on other trips my bag had alarmed in a similar way. In one case, they told me it was from powder on my make-up mirror. Who knew cosmetics could contain possible explosive material? In another instance, an officer whispered to me that it was caused by some medicine I’d been taking. She said that particular medicine commonly causes the machine to alarm.
In this case, the officer took my bags and ordered me over to a chair where he told me to take my shoes off. I then sat and watched while he took literally every single item out of my bag and tested and inspected it. And I mean everything.
Meanwhile, a female officer came over and told me that she was going to give me a pat-down. She didn’t offer that we go to another room to do this. She just did it.
A few minutes later an older gentleman appeared with the word “Explosives” written on his shirt. He told me he was in charge of (you guessed it) explosives and had a few questions to ask me. I told him that I was particularly surprised all of this was happening because in the last three weeks I’ve travelled through not only the Austin airport but also the airports in Washington, Dallas, Houston, and Seattle without incident with the exact same bags I was carrying on this particular day.
“It’s possible your bag came in contact with some kind of explosive material as you went through those airports,” he speculated. Why he would think this is rather disturbing in and of itself if you think about it.
“You could have also come in contact with someone who had explosive material on his person. Can you think of anyone like that?” he asked me.
“My driver held my hand as I was getting out of the car to help me out,” I replied.
In a low voice he asked me, “Did he look like a terrorist?”
Now here is where I think this entire matter went from the slightly over the top but routine TSA search and pat-down to weird and disturbing on several levels.
My initial thought was to ask, “And what does a terrorist look like?” Instead, I replied, “No, he’s a middle aged white guy, and he drives a black Towncar.”
“Oh, I thought you might have come in a cab,” he answered.
While I found these comments a bit inappropriate under the circumstances, at least this particular man was pleasant and trying to be as nice as possible. I told him I found this whole thing quite ironic because as we were coming to the airport our driver asked if we’d ever been on a cruise. I explained to him that we had been on a Disney cruise years before when President George H.W. Bush, Barbara, Jeb Bush, and the Bush twins were also on board. Before the trip we’d received a very lengthy background questionnaire which I thought was odd until I arrived to board the ship and discovered the identities of some of our fellow passengers. I presumed all the other passengers had been put through an extensive background check as well and in our case I guess we’d passed with flying colors because we’d been put on the same floor of the ship as members of the Bush family.
Given all that, I told him it was certainly a little surreal to be standing there treated like a common criminal. He assured me it really wasn’t a big deal and that I would soon be on my way.
“This is all just protocol at this point, ” he explained. “You’ll be on your plane in no time.”
After they swabbed and put each of my belongings through the metal detector a few times, another officer came over and told me they were almost done and that I would be free to go very soon.
A few minutes later, a female supervisor came over.
“You’re going to get a pat-down,” she told me.
“I already had one,” I replied.
“Well, you’re going to get another one. Go in that room,” she said in a nasty voice.
“No, just do it here so I can leave” I replied. I figured I’d already been molested once publicly so I could probably survive one more time.
“You have to go in that room,” she said sternly.
I found this quite ironic. The first woman who did this to me didn’t offer me a choice and the second woman told me I had no choice.
The supervisor entered the room with another woman and started giving me the entire speech about all the indignities I was about to suffer when I stopped her and explained that this whole thing had now got my stomach upset and I needed a restroom.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” I told her.
“Well if that happens, we have people who can come in here and clean it up,” she replied rudely.
She then proceeded to give me a pat-down that included twice touching an area of my body that if anyone else did it would at the most make that person subject to arrest or at least make them an excellent candidate for a civil lawsuit.
After she left the room, I demonstrated to the other woman where I’d just been touched and asked, “Is she allowed to touch me there?”
The other woman didn’t answer that question but instead (trying to be nice I guess) told me where I could find the nearest restroom.
As I exited, another officer told me I was free to go.
“You can pack up all your things or we can do it for you,” he said. I looked and all my things were everywhere on a table.
“You do it and I’ll watch,” I replied.
My husband and sons were standing with Officer Explosives and a member of the Austin Police Department. The explosives guy was (I think) trying to lighten the mood and smiled at me, pointed, and said, “The bar’s down that way.”
“I need the restroom,” I told him. That’s where I went and that’s where I became physically ill over the whole event.
So where does Jimmy Carter come in to this story?
Later, as we were lined up for our flight I noticed a bunch of Secret Service agents walking along the corridor. About five minutes later, Jimmy Carter himself appeared surrounded by a group of them.
Now I’m not sure if the over the top violations of my civil rights was as a direct result of his presence in the building, but either way it never should have happened.
As I noted to the explosives expert and the police officer as I left, “The real shame is that while you were unnecessarily putting me through all that a few real potential threats probably just walked on through.”
This is the heart of the problem with TSA and one that needs to be solved lest more grandmothers, small children, and moms like me go through something as awful as this again.