The Gloves Come Off at the TSA

I had to go to California.

I certainly didn’t want to drive all the way from Virginia, so I sighed, got a plane ticket, and drove to Washington Dulles Airport.

It reminded me of the scene at Chicago’s U.S. Army Induction Center on Van Buren Street in June 1967. Everybody stripped to their underwear, herded along (“Follow the yellow line…. You there, follow the red line”) – and everybody bending over.

My turn came up. I have skin cancer, so I wanted to skip the porn scanner. I explained this to the agent and he sent me to Mark Tate, the TSA one-striper who would pat me down and feel me up first.

Which he did.

Then he stuck his rubber gloves under a machine that made a loud beep.

Red flag. My clothes were apparently infested with explosive residue. I explained that I was a hunter, and that I wasn’t surprised.

Mr. Tate then called his supervisor, two-striper Christopher Anderson, who told me that the explosive residue meant that I had to get a more thorough pat-down, this time complete with a genital check, in a closed room.

The room was eerily reminiscent of the detention cells in Managua when the East German Stasi were running Nicaraguan airport security under the Sandinistas: tinted glass on one wall, offering a view to TSA officials on the other side like a two-way mirror, and room for Mr. Tate to observe.

I didn’t ask if I could film the inspection (actually, I didn’t have a camera to do it with).

“So you’re going to ‘touch my junk.’ Do I have an alternative?” I asked.

He became agitated. “If you want to argue, I’ll call my manager,” he said, not answering my question.

“I asked what my options were,” I said.

“If you refuse this, you will be denied entry to your flight.”

The intimidation is blatant and brazen: “I will feel your groin, twice across and twice down,” he told me.

Which he did.

Everyone else just had to take off their shoes and raise their hands – it reminded me of the Sundance Kid, yelling to Butch Cassidy, “they’re up against the wall already!”

But it’s not funny: the entire enterprise is designed not only to humiliate, but to habituate and to intimidate and to remind us of who’s in charge.

I told Mr. Anderson that if he did that to me anywhere else, he’d be in jail for life.

“No I wouldn’t,” he said, “We have the power to do it anywhere.”

I’m not kidding.

Neither was he.

Well, Solzhenitsyn occasionally found humor in the Gulag, and so do I.

Mr. Anderson’s “managers” came anyway – two of them actually – because of the explosive residue, apparently. Meanwhile, Mr. Anderson and Mr. Tate went through my luggage (which I was not allowed to touch).

I asked the lead manager (in a different uniform) if I was permitted to ask the question that had stirred Mr. Anderson’s ire.

“Sure, there’s nothing wrong with that.”

I then told Mr. Anderson that he should take that into consideration in the future. His countenance did not reflect serenity.

The managers then told me I was free to go, and I did.

I flew back to Dulles a few days later. As my return flight boarded in San Francisco, the United Airlines gate agent announced that the TSA would conduct a “random inspection” of passengers (the only such inspection I observed in that end of the terminal, with a dozen gates, during my three-hour layover).

Two TSA agents stood at a table by the gate, chatting.

Passenger groups one, two, and three boarded the plane without incident.

I was at the end of group four.

When I approached the gate, the two TSA agents left their table and moved smartly to flank the gate entrance, one on each side.

The big one on my right looked straight at me, sternly.

I looked straight back.

As I passed, he cracked a smile.

“Have a nice flight,” he said.

How nice of Mr. Anderson to send his Welcome Wagon.

“We have the power to do it anywhere.”

[Memo to Mr. Anderson: After I left your enclosure, I found that my gloves were missing. Please be so kind as to give them back. It was five degrees when we returned to Dulles after midnight, and I had to clean the ice off my windshield wearing socks on my hands. Thank you.]