Here’s What It’s Like to Work for the TSA

Politico magazine is running
a long personal essay by Jason Harrington
, a former
Transportation Security Administration worker, about his time
working the security lines at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. The tone is
confessional, and apologetic, and he reveals a lot about the
ugliness of the job. A few lowlights below:

The job was demoralizing: “It was a job that had me
patting down the crotches of children, the elderly and even infants
as part of the post-9/11 airport security show. I confiscated jars
of homemade apple butter on the pretense that they could pose
threats to national security. I was even required to confiscate
nail clippers from airline pilots—the implied logic being that
pilots could use the nail clippers to hijack the very planes they
were flying.”

The rules were nonsense: “Once, in 2008, I had to
confiscate a bottle of alcohol from a group of Marines coming home
from Afghanistan. It was celebration champagne intended for one of
the men in the group—a young, decorated soldier. He was in a
wheelchair, both legs lost to an I.E.D., and it fell to me to tell
this kid who would never walk again that his homecoming champagne
had to be taken away in the name of national security.”

Privately, TSA workers knew the agency’s full-body scanning
technology didn’t work:
“We knew the full-body scanners didn’t
work before they were even installed. Not long after the
Underwear Bomber incident, all TSA officers at O’Hare were informed
that training for the Rapiscan Systems full-body scanners would
soon begin. The machines cost about
$150,000 a pop. Our instructor was a balding middle-aged man who
shrugged his shoulders after everything he said, as though in
apology. At the conclusion of our crash course, one of the officers
in our class asked him to tell us, off the record, what he really
thought about the machines. ‘They’re shit,’ he said, shrugging. He
said we wouldn’t be able to distinguish plastic explosives from
body fat and that guns were practically invisible if they were
turned sideways in a pocket.”

The body scanning machines may not have been able to catch
terrorists. But they provided TSA agents with plenty of fodder for
jokes about the passengers they were scanning:
“Just as the
long-suffering American public waiting on those security lines
suspected, jokes about the passengers ran rampant among my TSA
colleagues: Many of the images we gawked at were of overweight
people, their every fold and dimple on full awful display.
Piercings of every kind were visible. Women who’d had mastectomies
were easy to discern—their chests showed up on our screens as dull,
pixelated regions. Hernias appeared as bulging, blistery growths in
the crotch area. Passengers were often caught off-guard by the
X-Ray scan and so materialized on-screen in ridiculous, blurred
poses—mouths agape, à la Edvard Munch. One of us in the I.O. room
would occasionally identify a passenger as female, only to have the
officers out on the checkpoint floor radio back that it was
actually a man. All the old, crass stereotypes about race and
genitalia size thrived on our secure government radio

Read the whole thing

from Hit & Run

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