Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Distraction III: Staying privileged in airports

I have always been deeply skeptical of the big scary machines in which we must all humiliate ourselves when traveling by air nowadays.  It didn't take long for people to start leaking the info that these things were bogus, and that most, if not quite all of the TSA security measures put into effect after September 11th, 2001 were nothing more than security pageantry rather than actual helpful measures.  Recently, an ex-TSA agent wrote an entertaining and disturbing piece on all of this.

Going through careful security screening is something I understand, but I also want it to be intelligent and effective, rather than some faux-CSI bullshit to impress morons unfamiliar with air travel more recent than the Wright brothers.  Since Research Country is one of those places that can set off enhanced security screening all by itself, I understand total ignoramuses thinking that I have to be strip-searched.  Real security professionals, though, ought to recognize that I am not a threat.  (Thanks for rummaging through my books so thoroughly, though, gang!)

My irritation with the pointlessness of most of these measures reached the point at which I was willing to pull bourgeois cultural capital rank as well as financial sacrifice, and basically pay for premium service.  You see, when you try to slip a $20 bill to a TSA agent to keep your shoes and belt on and undergo a more modest search, it's bribery; when you write an $85 check to the TSA, it's advance screening!

Naturally, such screening has its limitations, but really, the whole point of this is to make my life easier when it makes sense to do so.  I'm not going to blow up an airplane anywhere under any circumstances, but it seems to me especially ridiculous to fear I might do so on the Thursday red-eye from Cornstate City to Hometown.  People, no one is gunning for that flight.  If I could gather all TSA managerial personnel in a room and explain to them reasonable suspicion, to say nothing of why you can't hire part-time help and then never give them proper training, I would.  Times being what they are, and I being an obscure academic instead of a rockstar governmental advisor, the best I can do is pay for premium and let the TSA confirm once and for all that I'm not a terrorist.

Now, perhaps they have some criteria to determine who qualifies or not that they don't acknowledge to the general public.  However, looking over all the criteria they list on the website, the basics are:
  1. Don't be anyone already under suspicion of having committed treason or terrorism.
  2. $85.
It's both amusing and worrisome to me that this is all.  This suggests that anyone planning in advance to do something terrible just has to keep his nose clean, pay the non-refundable application fee, and wait a week or two.  Really, I kind of hope that TSA is being all sneaky and skullduggerish and not admitting to the more complex criteria, just to see if someone dangerous will blithely give himself away at the interview.  Or, you know, maybe they just want to see if the applicant is white and of an appropriately high socioeconomic class.  (I wore my best business casual, just in case.)

Of course, it's possible that it's at the interview stage when they pull out their bag of tricks for sizing up a person and determining if he looks/acts like a threat, and assuming the answer is no, continue to process the application and deposit the check.  That would actually be a pretty good way to run the ordinary security screenings, if only they would invest in the (wo)manpower and the necessary training.  (FWIW, my interviewer seemed considerably more professional and thoughtful than the average TSA agent, most of whom remind me of students who earned Ds in my courses at Ghosttown U.)  But it says nothing positive about either our priorities or our common sense that we have reserved such examination for people willing and able to pay extra for the privilege. 

In short, I'm glad to have the Known Traveler Number, since it will simplify the boarding process when I visit family or go on vacation (ha!).  But I don't exactly feel good about the haunting suspicion that all I have really done is to reinscribe class and racial privilege with the blessing of the U.S. government.

Frivolous P.S.:
Many thanks for all the helpful suggestions for whipping/thickening heavy cream!  I'm getting much better at it, now that I prep the utensils in the freezer for a little while.


  1. I actually have a student who works for TSA at our local airport. It's awkward.

  2. I've had similar thoughts about the Nexus pass, which is the US/Canada border equivalent--all three of us would have to do it, which would be pricey, but it would mean we could cross the border in the super-short line, which, when you're stuck behind The Entire Population Of Eastern Ontario Who Decided To Go Shopping In Watertown This Weekend, is appealing. It feels wrong, though.

    I do assume that there are a lot of behind-the-scenes screening criteria, and that they aren't making them clear to avoid gaming them, but it does seem like the private nature of them is explicitly an opportunity to have them turned into mechanisms for discrimination. ("But surely you have nothing to hide!" is something said by people who don't have to worry about every damn thing they say being misinterpreted by idiots, etc.) I wonder if many folks with heritage in our particular world region of study end up applying--and whether they get accepted or denied, and with what fuckery. It would be an interesting question to ask.