Homeland Security: Report from the Front

Everything you need to know about Homeland Security: the agent is the Muslim in the hijab, the suspect is the nun in the habit. Photo by Dean Shaddock

It’s hard to pick my favorite part of flying today. I say flying, but when I travel by air today I spend most of my travel time riding: in cars going to and from airports on roads clogged to near-gridlock (but that’s only during rush hour, which now begins at 5 am and usually is over by 3 am); on buses to and from airport parking lots, which these days are often located in nearby, not-necessarily-adjoining states (for example Dulles Airport, near Washington D.C., has its economy parking in Nebraska); on people movers, multi-million-dollar wonders of technology that whisk you around an airport at the speed of — oh, I don’t know, a brisk walk; and on airplanes that instead of flying at 600 miles per hour are sitting at a gate or inching along a taxiway at the speed of the aforementioned people mover. All this non-flying gives me lots of time for quiet reflection, for example on the fact that if I had started from home and had driven toward my destination, I would be there by now (does not apply to most intercontinental flights).

Or maybe the best thing is the feeling of self-confidence you get, when you take off your shoes in the jostle of the line in front of Checkpoint Charlie. This is all because a guy on an airplane tried to set his shoes on fire; when another guy tried to light up his underwear I had nightmares about the new security procedures that would follow, but instead they went with X-ray machines. So for now all you have to put in the tray is your shoes, along with your keys, hat, outer clothing, laptop, wallet, brief case, money, dentures and hairpiece. And then you realize as you shuffle forward like a steer with an appointment in an abattoir, under the steely gaze of the uniformed guards, that you did not, in fact, throw out that sock with the big hole in it, the hole that’s right over your big toe, the toe with the viciously ingrown toenail that has a fungus infection.

Wait, let’s not forget the feeling of togetherness that comes from being wedged and tamped into a big aluminum skin like the contents of a massive sausage, between a former linebacker who’s now a 350-pound beerbacker on one side, and his wife the Cheeto addict on the other, just in front of a colicky 14-month-old (one has been following me around the world for 27 years). Or that pampered feeling when the hatchet-faced flight attendant glares at your pitiful attempt to reach the rest room with a look that clearly says, “Back in your restraints or you’re going to solitary, F-23.”

No, no, I have it. The ultimate moment in the flying experience comes when, in the security line with one foot clamped over the other to hide the hole in your sock, you become aware of a growing, buzzing hive of TSA agents around the screen of the machine behind you, their voices rising in excitement, their eyes ablaze, because they have a violation! And then you realize that they’re looking at your tray. Now that’s a special feeling.

Happened to me the other day. The nature of my predicament had just dawned on me when one of the agents, holding something aloft as if it were a dead rat, strode toward me. He was not a particularly imposing guy, stood somewhere south of five feet nine, but he had the air of Detective Lenny Briscoe at the halfway point of Law and Order, when he says to the perp, “Stand Up!”

“What we have here,” announced the TSA guy to me and the throng nearby, “is a knife!”

As the crowd gasped, I looked blankly at what he was holding. My key ring. It made no sense. I looked back at him, with a little smile, waiting for the punch line. He grew impatient. “A pocket knife!”

Then I got it. On the key ring next to my three-inch-long car key was a two-and-a-half-inch-long gizmo made to look like a tiny Swiss Army knife. It had elfin scissors, a tiny set of tweezers, a toothpick, and, yes, a knife blade, made of the finest Swiss tin, just over two inches long. The thing had gone through airport security unchallenged any number of times. Theoretically, I could cut your throat with it, but you would have to hold very still for me, for about half an hour, while I worked my way laboriously toward your jugular. I could do a better job with my car key.

My smile widened. This was just a little bit of TSA humor. “You’ve got to be kidding,” I joshed.

Then a remarkable thing happened. He did exactly what a puffer fish does when threatened: he inflated himself until he looked like he was seven feet tall and three wide. “I am serious,” he growled, “as a heart attack.”

Now, my policy has alway been to be cautious and quiet when in the presence of people who a) have the authority to confine me to a small room, b) are carrying a gun, or c) are puffed up to three times their normal size. Confronted by all three attributes at once, I cling to my Miranda Rights, as interpreted by Officer Bubba on the old TV series In the Heat of the Night: “You have the right to shut up. If you do not shut up, you could get in deeper than you already in.”

So I stood mutely at attention while Sgt. Puffer outlined my options: go back out and try to find some way to mail the deadly weapon to myself, and probably miss my plane; or go back out and try to get the airline to check the piece, and probably miss my plane. I motioned toward the trash bin with my head. “You want me to throw it away?” I nodded vigorously. He did so, and began to deflate. I waited for permission before shuffling away in my sock feet.

America was a safer place that day, not only because of the men and women in uniform who are Over There fighting for our freedoms, but also because of the men and women in uniform Over Here who are making sure we don’t have many left.

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