Monday, January 05, 2009

Nobody frightens children like the TSA

If there is a special place in Hell for officious government employees, I'm sure there's a spot all warmed up for the Transportation Security Administration officer at Baltimore/Washington International Airport who scared my kid out of his wits.

Last week, I solicited stories from readers about their unpleasant experiences with post-9/11 travel security. Little did I know I'd be my own best correspondent. On my family's flight back east, we witnessed random shakedowns at the gate after we'd already passed through security. But that didn't begin to compare to the brief but telling experience we had at BWI on the return leg of our journey.

My wife and I checked in without incident, then headed to the security checkpoint with our 3 1/2-year-old son in tow. The very first TSA officer we encountered glanced at our ID and our boarding passes, and then proceeded to interrogate ... my kid.

"What's your name, son? Can you tell me your name?"

He shuffled through our boarding passes and then started again.

"What's your name? Can you tell me?"

He barely acknowledged the presence of the adults, saying only, "This will just take a minute."

I seethed. But we were 3,000 miles from home, at airport security in a strange city. We all needed to get back to Arizona, and getting booted from the airport -- or worse, arrested -- wouldn't accomplish that goal.

"Tell the nice man your name, Tony," I suggested.

"Tell me your name," the uniformed officer insisted.

Through all oft his, Tony remained tongue-tied, with a look of growing confusion mixed with terror on his face. That's no surprise. Like most parents, we warn our son against chatting with strange adults. And, like most young children, Tony isn't inclined to react favorably to sharp questions from random people.

Tony's silence may even have been a blessing. On any given day, under good circumstances, he's as likely to tell you that he's a monster or a "sharptooth" or Christopher Robin as he is to volunteer the name his mother and I gave him. I mean, he's 3 1/2 for crying out loud.

About which I gently reminded the officer. The muttered, "he's just three, you know," may or may not have helped.

"I bet I know your name," the TSA agent finally said. "I bet it's Anthony. Do they call you Tony?"

Tony tearfully surrendered a slight nod, allowing the agent of the security state to claim a victory over the forces of evil, and we were on our way. Of course, at this point, the kid would have nodded if you'd asked him if he was Mickey Mouse.

Which makes this whole routine garbage. What was the point? To see if we were terrorists using a kidnapped kid as a beard? We could have been terrorists using our own kid. Or we could have been smuggling the kid from a clone farm to be broken up for parts by a Colombian criminal kingpin. Young children don't carry photo ID, and we don't implant chips in them like we do with our dogs (oh, I hope I'm not giving anybody ideas), so there's really no way around taking an adult's word for a child's identity. That conversation proved nothing except that really young kids choke under pressure.

Was the TSA goon really going to deny us passage or even haul us in if my kid insisted that he was a character from Winnie the Pooh?

After that encounter, piling our wordly possessions on the conveyor belt and passing through the metal detectors was relatively painless. As we pulled our shoes back on, though, my kid pointed back toward security and said, in a soft voice while looking at the floor, "those people scare me."

Well, they scare me, too. And now they've really ticked me off. Way to go folks. You know our country is just a little bit safer when we make toddlers pee their pants.

Except that, as a paper published just a year ago in the British Medical Journal made clear, the TSA has never bothered to study its procedures to determine if they actually accomplish anything. We don't know that any of this really makes us safer, because nobody has ever checked. Which suggests that putting tots in the hot seat is a tactic the security honchos dreamed up based on their instincts that it would make us all safer. I'll bet their home lives are charming.

I don't know what the penalty is for slugging a federal law-enforcement officer, but we almost found out at BWI. I feel guilty that I let my son be subjected to the third degree the way I did so that we could continue on our way home. Maybe I'd be a better father if I'd actually taken a swing at the officer harassing my kid.

One way or another, I guarantee that it won't happen again.

by J.D. Tuccille


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