Who doesn’t love the apprehension of facing the ladies and gentlemen in the beautiful blue TSA shirts? You stand there in line with your ticket and picture ID hoping you put all your liquids in the correct pocket so you can pull them out quickly to throw in the tray. You shuffle forward and hand your boarding pass and drivers license to the TSA officer with a special light and a highlighter. The person mumbles something. You start to panic because you’re not sure if it’s an important question, instructions for some new security requirement or a very lame attempt at a greeting. Without looking up at you the officer hands you back your documents and reaches out to the person behind you.
Inching forward you try to gauge which line will move the quickest. Of course, it’s not always the shortest line that goes the fastest. It’s best to avoid getting behind the old couple that flies once every ten years. They’re easy to pick out. You should avoid getting behind anyone who looks scared, and without trying to be cruel or judgmental, try to avoid getting behind people in wheelchairs. Always look for the business types, those that obviously travel often. You see the perfect line and step out, starting to unbuckle your belt as you move forward.
Reaching the trays you wait your turn until you can grab the two trays you need. You try not to look with disdain at the guy being sent back from the metal detector for the third time because he doesn’t know that you have to remove your belt, your shoes, your old cough drop wrappers and the toy gun from your carry on. As soon as you have trays in your possession you drop your belt, two shoes and a wallet into one tray. You stuff your wallet into a shoe and put your boarding pass under a shoe. With hardly a blink you pull your laptop out of your backpack and drop it, I mean set it carefully, into the other tray.
Dutifully, you put your two carry-ons behind your two trays and make sure they are all into the x-ray machine before you step out to face the lottery. Will it be the quick trip through the metal detector or the new body scanner with the chance of further invasions? You face the gatekeeper. In an effort to reduce your chances of a cavity search, you make sure your shirt is tucked in and in an obvious manner you run your hands over your pockets to show that you’ve removed everything. (Sometimes, I even act like I’m pulling lint out and dropping it.)
After a cursory glance up and down your person, the gatekeeper, in a tone that suggests you’re the one holding everything up, says, “Step through, please.” You breathe a sigh of relief when you realize it’s just the metal detector this time. (The last time I went through the body scanner, the person on the other side told me I had been selected for special screening. I was instructed to stand on the footprints off to one side. Dreading what was coming, I wanted to hug the man in the blue TSA shirt when he said he just needed to do an extra check on my shoes.)
Stories in the news continue to highlight the number of social incongruities that occur in the TSA domain on a regular basis. You never know when a grandmother or a toddler is going to be pulled aside for “special” screening. We all read and watch these stories in amazement as we realize that government policies force people with a brain to do things that have no purpose. Often the result is discomfort and anger.
Now, as you recall all that we’ve seen here in the states as fellow Americans, from different sides of the TSA Blue, that violate social norms, imagine what can happen when you mix people from different countries in the same type of environment. I’ve had some fun experiences going into and leaving places like Russia, Uzbekistan, Turkey and Alabama. My most memorable experience occurred at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany on the way home from somewhere in east Europe.
After deplaning I headed for the security screening to get into the airport and to my next gate. This was just after they started to suggest that travelers remove their shoes before going through the metal detector. At this point in my traveling career it was still voluntary. After dropping my items onto the belt for the x-ray machine I stepped into the line for the metal detector. I couldn’t see much in front of me besides the back of the gentleman in front of me, but I soon became aware of the fact that he was not comfortable and was becoming increasingly agitated.
Looking at him I realized he was of Middle Eastern descent, which I have to admit, with the current international security concerns and a war in Iraq, made me a little nervous. Quickly I saw that he was watching what was taking place in front of us. The German version of a TSA officer, in this case a gentleman I named Gunther, was, well fondling the guy in front of us. I mean this was an in depth session, the kind that even a deep tissue masseuse would avoid. After several uncomfortable seconds, as we looked on in horror, Gunther finally allowed his victim to walk through the metal detector, left alone to deal with his shame.
My new friend in front of me was trying to find a way, any way to avoid the same fate. He offered to take off his shoes. Gunther said there was no need.
“Please step through the metal detector.”
Completely agitated he stepped through. The sensitivity level must have been cranked way up on the machine, because as soon as he stepped through it beeped. Gunther’s partner in crime on the other side sent him back through the metal detector. My friend started to take his shoes off, hoping his would save his threatened pride. It didn’t work. Gunther grabbed him by the shoulder, gently and shook his head. Then Gunther showed him how to take the position—legs spread and arms up. With a very satisfied look Gunther began his assault. It probably only lasted thirty seconds, but the space-time continuum was massively impacted by the high level of shame and dread. Time slowed down. I could see the tears forming in my fellow traveler's eyes. Finally, with his shoulders slumped, he walked away and it was my turn.
I find myself unable to put into words what I experienced next and I don’t think you would want to read the specifics. Suffice it to say, that I went on a mental trip to a place as far away as I could find in the recesses of my mind. It wasn’t far enough. Despite the awfulness of the experience, I learned some valuable lessons. First, some people, like Gunther, enjoy working in airport security for very malicious reasons. I did get the impression that he experiences high job satisfaction. Second, always take your shoes off when going through airport security. (When I got home and went to Wal-mart with my family, I had to fight the urge to take my shoes off walking through the sensors that are meant to catch shoplifters.) Third, shame fades with time.