Vibram FF and the TSA

I recently flew away to a short vacation. On my way through the TSA checkpoint, I encountered some trouble. They ran my carry-on through the x-ray three times and then decided to take it aside and open it up.

I like to travel light--one bag max--and I had had a time packing my bag as I was going on a cruise where some formal clothes were required. I had too many clothes in the bag, and on top of it my ties, of which I had a few nice ones, were carefully packed in order to minimize possible creases. While I was packing, I thought my clothes are going to explode out of this bag.

I don't know about you, but when I'm dealing with TSA, I have a lot more thought for my belongings than for terrorists. Belongings like the $600 cash I had schlepped along. In reality, the chance of a terrorist attacking your plane is next to nothing, and I know I'm not a terrorist, too.

So as the TSA agent was taking my bag aside to rummage through it, and I was thinking about my ties and dough, I said, "just be careful when you open it, 'cause it's going to explode." As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I realized they were a bad choice, and I immediately clarified: "I mean the clothes, not literally. The clothes are packed in really tight. Sorry." I smiled sheepishly.

The TSA agent understood what I meant and went ahead with the bag check, but it was too late. As I absentmindedly turned around while waiting for my bag to be returned, I noted another TSA agent--a young man with knitted brow--pacing half-akimbo with his cell-phone cocked self-importantly at his ear. It wasn't long before another agent in a different uniform, sporting a sidearm came out to meet me.

I had the full pat-down, background check treatment. While I waited silently with a guard standing by, the flight was delayed, and I almost wasn't allowed to leave. Of the various agency databases my name was being run through, one was apparently not giving me a pass. In the end, I was allowed to leave, but I was told that I had to call my local sheriff's office before leaving my destination airport.

When my belongings were returned, there was only one thing in the bag that had been taken out, my Vibram FiveFingers.

"you are going to be in trouble"

While walking to the plane, the sidearm agent told me that, although I was going to be allowed to go on my trip, I was going to "be in trouble" when I returned. It was kind of melodramatic: "When you get on the plane, go directly to your seat. Don't do anything out of the ordinary. If you so much as say 'boo,' the pilot's going to turn the plane around, and it's going to be a lot worse." What being "in trouble" entailed, he didn't say. I fantasized on the plane.

As I don't have a cell phone, calling the sheriff's office from Fort Lauderdale airport was a real treat. Nobody knew where the public phones in the airport were, and neither the TSA nor the airline would let me make a phone call. Thanks, guys.

Anyhow, I returned on Thanksgiving, and as of a little under two weeks, I haven't heard anything from the TSA, sherrif, FBI, federal prosecutors, etc. So I'm going to assume they aren't going to take action, although I wouldn't be surprised if the wheels of "justice" turned slow. As far as I can figure, there are several statutes related to "false information" that I could have been charged under, some with criminal penalties and some with civil penalties. The one most likely to apply is the $10,000 penalty from § 46302 of Title 49.
(a) Civil Penalty.— A person that, knowing the information to be false, gives, or causes to be given, under circumstances in which the information reasonably may be believed, false information about an alleged attempt being made or to be made to do an act that would violate section 46502 (a), 46504, 46505, or 46506 of this title, is liable to the United States Government for a civil penalty of not more than $10,000 for each violation.
Any reasonable person reading this statute would have to agree that it isn't meant to apply to me. There was no "alleged attempt," as I immediately clarified what I meant. If the agents hadn't understood my slip of the tongue, they wouldn't have immediately opened my bag to check it. Is that what you would do if you thought a bag were going to explode when it opened? Open it?

Anyhow, what I am more concerned about is falsification of the incident. As the case of Dr. Peter Watts, who was falsely accused of choking a border guard that beat him up, attests, you are essentially at the mercy of the system.

the TSA is dumb

Even if you think I should be subject to a "false information" penalty, you can't deny that the DHS acted stupidly. Their purpose is to ensure the security of transportation. At the point at which my bag was rummaged thoroughly, what is the purpose of a background check? What is the thought process that takes you from one situation to another? Is a terrorist going to draw attention to himself and potentially be kept off a plane and arrested for a joke? The whole thing is non-sensical, and I've probably been put on lists I don't even know about just for having my name run through some databases.

TSA employees: not just following orders

To keep myself calm during the incident, I kept telling myself that the TSA agents were just doing their job. They're just employees; it's not their fault if the systems are dumb.

But in fact I don't believe that.

The "following orders" defense of one's actions applies only in a very limited set of situations. The quintessential one is the military. The military's entire effectiveness rests on the ability of officers to give orders and not have them questioned. The lives of soldiers are on the line. And the military rightly punishes those who don't follow orders. So, within reason, a soldier can be forgiven for performing mindless and offensive duties.

In healthcare, a patient's life might be on the line, and where a nurse or technician doesn't have the training to analyze a flaw in orders, he can be forgiven for following them.

The logic of these two examples does not apply to the TSA. TSA employees have latitude to exercise judgement and should do so. More importantly, they have the ability to leave at any time.

The fact of the matter is that the highly problematic existence of and procedures of the TSA depend on the existence of a volunteer workforce, a cadre of Americans who individually decide to carry out TSA policies. Every member of that workforce can easily avoid not being part of the problem, but they take the King's sovereign nonetheless. I don't believe they are substantially providing protection, and I do believe they are engaged in activities that violate what should be our Constitutional rights. Furthermore, they are extending a system of administrative/bureaucratic oversight of daily life that I find reprehensible.

Yes, individual TSA agents are doing this, not the Secretary of Homeland Security, but your neighbors who work at the airport.