Last weekend I returned to my alma mater for homecoming. (GO BADGERS!) Leaving the Madison, Wisconsin Airport on Sunday, my husband and I were treated to the Transportation Security Agency's (TSA) Tony Award-worthy performance in "feel safe" security theater.
First, TSA had reserved one of the two security checkpoints for TSA Pre-Checked passengers only. (Pre-Check is the program where you give TSA more of your private information - like your fingerprints - and you get to keep your shoes on.) At a small regional airport in a college town on homecoming weekend, eliminating a checkpoint created quite a mess at the remaining checkpoint, with dozens of people missing flights. The mess was messier because the remaining checkpoint had one naked body scanner and one metal detector, but TSA didn't bother letting people go through the metal detector until the airlines started calling 20-some names of passengers who were late to board.
But what really scared TSA: It was my first weekend away from our new baby, and I had with me a cooler full of pumped breast milk.
After incidents like the one where my colleague and Kossack Jesselyn Radack was asked to taste her breast milk (!!!!), TSA actually developed a policy, which says that breast milk is medically necessary and therefore exempt from the "no liquids" rule.
Per the TSA policy, you have to "declare" that you have breast milk to TSA screeners. My husband and I declared, and declared, and declared. In fact we had this conversation with at least four different TSA "agents:"
Me: "I have breast milk in this cooler."There were some variations, including:
TSA: "Take it out separately to go through the X-Ray machine."
Me: "Do we have to do that? It's on ice and will possibly go bad if it sits out."
TSA: "You can just put it though. It might take longer."
Me: "We are about to miss our flight. Does it have to take longer?"
TSA: Silence. [or] Shrug. [or] Sigh.
TSA Agent: "It should be in 3.4 ounce containers."
Me: "It's exempt, it's medically necessary."
TSA Agent: Silence.
The fifth time we "declared" the breast milk, I guess we sounded exasperated and explained that we had told TSA about the breast milk five times. An agent sharply responded "Well, did you tell HER (the current agent) five times?"
I was fighting back tears by the time I watched a TSA Agent snatch the cooler as it came out of the X-Ray machine for "special screening," and unceremoniously put each of the 8 bottles I painstakingly collected into a machine. She flipped a box of tissues onto the table, "Tissue?" I declined the tissue and asked for a complaint form. We missed our flight.
Since 9/11, Americans have become comfortable with the discomfort of the formerly friendly skies. We are used to taking off our shoes, belts and jackets. We've been through the naked body scanners. We've been wanded and patted down - palms out, as if that's supposed to make you feel better about being felt up by a stranger. We've had our carry-on bags dismantled, and now I've had my breast milk specially screened for who knows what. (Drugs? Poison? Explosives?).
These precautions are more show than security, and their seemingly random nature makes it all the more frustrating. On a business trip a couple of months ago, I traveled though San Francisco and Washington D.C. airports with the same cooler of breast milk without any of this "special screening." Although, those of us who feel somewhat violated and frustrated are luckier than the victims of profiling or strip searches or detention. The hassle deters travelers more than the so-called "security measures" deter criminals. After being a forced participant in TSA's homecoming parade last weekend, I can understand why.