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The TSA can't control how you talk

Perhaps you have reflected while passing through airports, as I have many times over the past several years: Here are federal employees with wages and benefits whose job is to move a plastic dishpan from one end of a table to the other.

It is all part of the rich absurdity of contemporary air travel. First, you are fleeced by the airlines, which cannot apparently make a go of their business without nickel-and-diming the customers. Pay for a seat that has about as much space as you would have had in the hold of a ship on the Middle Passage, unless you pay more for some room. Pay for your bag. Pay more for an extra bag. Ryanair considered installing pay toilets on its planes, an idea whose time is surely coming.

Then, at the airport, submit yourself to petty indignities in the name of security. Take off your hat. Take off your coat. Take off your watch. Empty your pockets. Take off your shoes. Shuffle through the line, holding up your papers for inspection. Ah, you fit some not-publicly-defined profile.* Step aside for additional examination.

Now, of course, they have the authority for a procedure that stops just shy of a body cavity search. And if you want to get on a plane, there is no challenging them. Their authority is arbitrary and absolute. You will have read accounts of people’s experience of invaded personal privacy and humiliation, of questionable behavior by TSA personnel, of outrage and defiance.**

But heed: You are not without recourse. No, not from your elected officials, who are all intimidated by the Need for Security in the War on Terror. Your recourse is humor.

I realized this while reading Erin McKean’s current essay on language in The Boston Globe, “Frisky.” She starts by examining the TSA’s lingo: “The aggressively bland language used by the TSA to describe these new policies — enhanced screening procedures, advanced imaging machines, enhanced pat-down — are classic bureaucratese, in which descriptions are seemingly engineered to minimize the meaning conveyed while maximizing the number of words used.”

The response has come from the publlic: “the stressed, disoriented, and embarrassed passengers” who are beginning “to fill in the gaps with new vocabulary — sometimes with vocabulary much blunter than the TSA might wish for.”

Thus security theater, the term for procedures that serve more to convey a bogus sense of security than detect any actual threat. (Take off those shoes.) The “enhanced pat-downs”? Gate rape, freedom pats, freedom fondles and freedom frisks, grope-a-palooza, peel and feel.

Recall the citizens of the old Soviet Union, whose response to an inept, deadening, and unresponsive bureaucracy was mordant humor—“we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us”—and let them be an example and an encouragement to you. As Ms. McKean says, “We may not control our belongings or our dignity, but we can certainly reclaim the way we talk about them.”


 *At some point my name apparently got on some kind of watch list, and I could not check in for a boarding pass at one of the helpful little machines but had to go to the ticket counter to prove who I am. I inquired about this and appealed, and after some months got a vaguely worded letter that indicates that I challenged the listing and might be all right, though I haven’t had occasion to fly since.

God knows what they will subject me to after I publish this post.

**You may also have read scolding that All Is Permitted for Security in the War on Terror, so shut up about strip searches, pantywaists. And, while you are shutting up, shut about any questions about whether these techniques actually accomplish anything.

You do not, I think, have to be a tea partier to recognize that arbitrary authority will always find apologists.


Posted by John McIntyre at 9:08 PM | | Comments (8)


Be careful! You may wind up in Siberia on your next flight. I'd invest in a RV. :)

I'd like to also thank the US Government for the little extra they threw in for Christmas to Australia Post:
"Articles over 453g and all ECI and EPI services will be subject to an additional $9 security surcharge and may face transit delays of up to 48 hours."

See! Even us Aussies are copping it...
(Great posting as always, John!)

If it's punishable by fine or imprisonment to make jokes about bombs, it may well soon be punishable likewise to make jokes about TSOs. Vae victis!

Pantywaist! One of my favorite words. After this column you are surely on Triple Secret Airline Probation. How're you going to explain that holiday in Yemen?

We need to start working on these trains man. Get these trains up to the standards they have in places like Japan and Germany.

For security at airlines,et al, I refer you to Israel. They use intelligence, observation and profiling: it works, and no groping is allowed.

Actually, some airports have signage warning of dire consequences should one make snide comments about the "screening" process. I will be flying out of one such airport this Thursday, and will make a note of the exact wording so I can share it with you all (I've seen it before, since I fly out of this airport weekly, just can't remember the exact wording). This might be the worst part of the whole airport security theater: curtailing my First Amendment rights as well as my Fourth Amendment rights.

We were away for Thanksgiving and (much to my surprise) security was a breeze. No special devices or groping. I was worried about being given special attention as the name on my boarding pass did not match the name on my driver's license, but I carried lots of photo IDs to show my legal name and the name I really use, and there was no problem. The biggest problem is that we got caught in rush hour traffic, and then the airport shuttle bus did not come for a long them (then there were 3 all at once). But we got on the plane 5 minutes before push back.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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