Friday, March 13, 2009

Sky Marshal Story - Ex Air Marshal Survives Preflight Sceening 2009 - #37



In the – now – 37 years since I flew as a Federal Sky Marshal, or what they call an Air Marshal these days, I’ve noted with some interest the evolution in airport screening procedures. Since the TSA was created I, along with millions of hapless air travelers, have had to partially disrobe, sort out our toiletries into transparent bags, and have what we presumed were innocuous personal items confiscated all in the name of in-flight security. It’s good to know that our airways are safe from bottles of Evian.

I now routinely detach the Swiss Army pen knife from my key chain before a flight lest it disappear into the void that has consumed several of its predecessors. Yes, I admit that I’ve lost a couple of pen knives as the rules for allowing or seizing such items changed without notice over the years. I’m sure seasoned travelers have noted that not just the procedures but the intensity of their enforcement varies greatly from airport to airport.

Still, I have compassion for the folks in the TSA because I was part of the cadre of air marshals that initiated the pre-flight bag checks, pat-downs and helped implement the first metal detectors in boarding lounges in the early 1970’s. I know what it’s like to waylay someone who only wants to get through the screening so they can join the queue in the jet way that’s shuffling onto the aircraft. And I had my share of irate passengers complaining about Gestapo tactics.

As a result I experienced a mixture of bemusement and concern when my son was confronted by a couple of deputy sheriffs as he and I were departing to visit some potential college campuses some months back. I’m not going to name the airport because I regularly fly out of there. Through I doubt that the deputies featured in my story are among the dozen or so out there who read this blog…you can never tell.

So, that morning as we’ve just passed through the metal detector as a young TSA screener halts my son and asks to inspect his backpack from which the screener produces a shiny, chrome-plated shuriken (ninja throwing star) - a souvenir that my son had found at Navy Pier in Chicago some years earlier when our family had visited his aunt. My boy is an avid video game player and his room is a collection of faux martial arts memorabilia.

As an aside, my son was in martial arts for more than six years, and though he mastered all of the forms, techniques and disciplines, he also demonstrated a total lack of killer spirit. Or, as his sensei put, “He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.” Anyway, this particular item of oriental arcana had remained unnoticed and forgotten in his backpack for several years until that fateful day in the preflight screening line.

In short order after the TSA had extracted the shuriken from my son’s backpack, two deputy sheriffs assigned to back up the TSA ambled over. I was taken by the irony of the situation when I noticed that the younger of the two cops is a large, angry man who is radiating righteous indignation. On the other hand, my son looks like a deer facing a voracious mountain lion. This cop, who I’ll call officer Cavity Search, launches into a lecture on the seriousness of the circumstances and the implied threat to national security – not to mention God, mother and apple pie – that the infraction represents.

In the meantime the TSA guy, who appears bored by the whole thing has us fill out a short form and returns to his duties. While officer CS is berating my kid, I notice that his partner - a much older policeman with tired eyes – looks as if he is secretly hoping that officer CS runs out of steam before they have to fill out the paper work.

As I’m explaining how the shuriken, which was never meant for actual use and therefore falls somewhere between a butter knife and a fingernail file as a weapon, ended up in my son’s backpack, officer Lotta Paperwork reports that shurikens aren’t actually on the list of banned items. Officer CS – much disappointed – winds up with a lecture on responsibility and they let us go. I check in with my son to see what he makes of the whole thing and find that while he’s a bit shaken he appreciates implications…and the ultimate reprieve.
© Stephen Rustad, 2009