Airport Education

Sooner or later everyone will have their own story of fun at the airport. I wasn't even flying this particular day, which is part of why I had trouble. It was an experience that illustrates some scary tendencies of the regulatory state. It was an educational morning at the airport.

Regulations give people permission not to think. When my property was seized at the security station of the airport (which was nothing anyone would have bothered with less than a year ago) the consistent and unwavering answer to any challenge I gave them was "that's against the rules."

It did not matter that I was going to the gate less than twenty feet away, or that I'd be there less than half an hour. I certainly did not expect them to let me take it past the security checkpoint – though as pocket knives go it was tiny–but it seemed odd they could not lay it on their little machine for a few minutes. If I returned to the main terminal now, I could have it, but a few minutes later, I could not. Were it not for the need to put my 10-year-old niece on the plane (the timing made more difficult because of – surprise – long lines for security screening) it would be no issue. I'd have gladly taken it back to the end of the line in the main terminal and found someone to leave it with. Given a choice between my wife's gift, and leaving my niece stranded in a public place without an escort or risking her missing her plane, I left the station and walked over to gate one, still in sight of all my new friends at the checkpoint.

That action brought up another tendency of the regulatory state. That is, to change the language to avoid naming the true nature of their actions. My property was taken without my permission. Either I gave up that property or other property (like time or tickets). Attempting to recover my property would have been met with force. It felt like my property was stolen. Not even a similar word like seized or confiscated or forfeiture was used to describe this action. The new word is "surrender."

By walking away from the checkpoint, I was informed, I would be surrendering my property. Ah, sweet surrender. No theft here, and not even an action by the state. It was I who had surrendered. I suppose after all it's an appropriate word. They threatened me, and took my property, and I surrendered rather than fight it out, as any reasonable person probably would.

When my niece was safely away, I returned to attempt recovery of my property. I started with the lead security person, and heard about rules and regulations. Then he finally asked who I had dealt with. I pointed out the one fellow, but his supervisor had just left the area. "Oh, she's at lunch." And then he looked at me for the longest time, as if that was the answer. Yes, when rules and regulations aren't enough, and there's a glimmer of hope of actually getting something dealt with, there's lunch! Lunch solves everything.

When I stared back, he referred me to the Transportation Security Agency representative. He also cited rules and regulations and his powerlessness. He's simply available for advice, but has nothing to do with the security operation being run by the local airport personnel. Back I went to the head of security, attempting vainly again to reason with him. After all, the security of the airport was well in hand. They certainly hadn't let that particular contraband through today, no Sir! A mighty fine operation indeed! With the airport so protected, and with no more business to conduct, I'd like to leave with my property. Such reasoning revealed another truth about regulation.

"If I did that for you, I'd have to do that for everybody."

Oh my. So, the rule had nothing to do with security! It was for their convenience! My property was kept, not because it was a threat to security, but because it would be inconvenient to return things. Even if it had only been a few minutes, and even if nobody else would ever know I actually pulled off the coup of a lifetime — convincing a bureaucrat to return property rather than follow the rules for convenience enforcement – their convenience is preferred over mine.

The last fun lesson was the weird bias against value. When figuring out where my property would go when it left the security checkpoint, I learned that it would be destroyed. Obviously, if they had a lot of seized property, there would be the potential for corruption. Some of it may have value, and some folks might say "hey, it's trash anyway, so I'll keep it." That wouldn't do. Nor would it do to sell the property, since that would highlight the value that was taken from the original owner. But for some reason it's okay to destroy the value. Somehow, the crime is less if nobody receives the value from stolen property.

It's as if a robber would be less guilty if he destroyed the property he stole, since, after all, he did not benefit from the theft. Somehow the damage isn't done if someone else doesn't benefit. Their hands are washed clean, because they didn't receive the value, but instead, destroyed it. Ironically, they spend your tax money to pay the contractor to destroy that which they seized. Twice the theft in the name of security.

What a wonderful educational trip the airport was that day. You don't have to think when you have a regulation to reference. If what you're doing doesn't sound very nice, just change the word to something else, and better yet, make it blame the other guy. Everyone must understand that security comes at the cost of convenience, but not if you're doing the security. If you're afraid of being caught with the goods, destroy the evidence.

July 29, 2002

Matt Lasley [send him mail] , the father of five, lives in the shadow of Pike’s Peak.