I spend a lot of time on airplanes, so let me begin by saying that I appreciate our nation’s TSA screeners and I could never in a million years do what they do. It’s not simply the pressure of being on the frontline against terrorism at our nation’s airports, it’s the unbelievable number of stink bombs posing as shoes they have to touch. Just the other day I saw a barefoot guy the size of a linebacker hand a pair of flip-flops with some kind of alien fungus to the screener to drop on the conveyor belt into the X-ray machine. The man’s toes had more hair than my head. I am a serious germ-o-phobe, and I think I would have had a stroke.
Of course, I would also have a panic attack the first time a passenger took his boarding pass out of his mouth and handed it to me to review.
And then there are the lonely hearts who volunteer for the extra pat-downs after they’ve passed through security.
So, TSA screeners: Are we good? Good.
Last month was a bad press month for the TSA. First of all, one set of screeners in Florida forced a 95-year-old woman in a wheelchair to peel off her adult diaper. Second, a passenger flew from New York City to Los Angeles using another passenger’s boarding pass. Finally, the screeners in Austin allowed a Texas scorpion to sneak through security, board a plane, and bite a passenger. (We might want to castigate the air marshals on this one, too.) We do not know if the scorpion’s 3-1-1 bag was examined or whether the animal had checked bags.
Obviously, a 95-year-old woman in a wheelchair does not fit the conventional profile of a terrorist. But given the role that shoes have played in terrorism in the past, it is only a matter of time before someone tries to smuggle a bomb aboard in a diaper. (Notice that I used the expression “stink bomb” in the first paragraph, precisely so I would not be tempted to use it here and go for the obvious, easy laugh. Oh, wait, I can’t resist: It’s only a matter of time before we start to worry more about stink bombs than dirty bombs.)
Likewise, it’s difficult to blame the TSA officials for allowing a scorpion to board the plane. We simply don’t have the systems in place to snare scorpions. Frankly, would you want to pat one down? For that matter, would you want to pat down a 95-year-old woman in a diaper? Besides, for all we know the scorpion’s photo ID and boarding pass were in perfect order.
It is also worth noting that none of us in a democracy want to see the sort of passenger profiling that would lead to automatically strip-searching all arachnids.
Nevertheless, the TSA has already taken a serious public relations hit this summer and we are not even at the mid-point in July. And so let me say right here — and not simply because I am going to be passing through security a lot in the coming months — that I stand proudly with the women and men of the TSA. I salute you. I know how difficult it is to keep the sky safe and not vomit when you have to smell some of our shoes. I know how tough it must be to pat some of us down — especially those of us with bad hygiene and bad breath.
So, as July heats up and our deodorants start to fail, let’s give the proud women and men of the TSA a break. If it’s going to keep the skies safe from grandmothers and scorpions, I am perfectly willing to hand over my antibacterial hand gel. It might be all that stands between us and the ultimate nightmare at 35,000 feet: A scorpion in a diaper with a bomb.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on July 10, 2011. Chris’s next novel, The Night Strangers, arrives on October 4, 2011.)