Wednesday, August 11, 2010

It could have been worse - it could have been Detroit

Michael’s experience with Britain’s TSA and police at Heathrow got me thinking about my friend and teammate, Angela’s experience with the TSA and police in Detroit’s airport.  Her incident happened on the way to Kenya.  She’d borrowed her son’s carry-on, not thinking he’d have a knife in it. Turns out, he didn’t; he had a throwing star.  So when Angela dutifully put her bag through the scanner, the TSA employee found it and, just like what happened to Michael, informed Angela she’d have to talk to the police.  That’s where the similarities end.

Angela was taken to a holding room where the police questioned her for an hour about the throwing star and how it could possibly have gotten into her bag.  Her truthful explanation didn’t seem to hold much water with the Detroit police and they badgered her about how it got in the bag and what she was doing with it.  Folks, this is a school teacher on her way to a mission trip.  She has no prior record of anything and the last time she traveled out of the country was to Kenya 23 years ago! 

Eventually reason prevailed and they decided she wasn’t a threat to national security.  But before they let her go they questioned her mothering: why would a good mom let her son have a throwing star?  Seriously?  All the mothers in Detroit who let their children have guns and you’re raking my friend over the coals about a throwing star? 

Now, let’s be clear.  I wouldn’t let my son have a throwing star.  I’d only let my kid have a knife that’s banned in most European countries…

The US TSA could learn a lot from Britain’s TSA, mainly, reason.  The British folks saw a family of five traveling together.  They saw two parents who could have maimed their own son upon realizing he’d put a knife through the airport security x-ray machine.  They saw a kid who was mortified he’d forgotten to check the knife.  And they saw the kid’s parents willing to let the police do their job.  Not exactly marks of a terrorist in the making.  They understood it was a mistake, and after doing their job, sent us on our way.
Detroit’s TSA saw a woman willing to answer their questions and do what they asked. They didn’t (initially) accept her (truthful) story and instead, questioned her for an hour, thinking that would cause her to crack and spill the beans about her supposed terrorist leanings. They didn’t take into account her demeanor or her cooperative spirit.  And when they finally realized what they were dealing with – a teacher and short-term missionary with a borrowed bag – they called her parenting into question.  Nice.

I know there’s a place for airport security and I’m all for letting the TSA and police do their jobs.  I understand they have to treat each security breach seriously.  But when the evidence doesn’t point to terrorism, they need to move along and find actual security threats.

So I guess the moral of the story is if you’re going to accidentally take a sharp through security, do it across the pond.  They seem to understand the meaning of the word, “accident.”

When I asked Angela if I could tell her story she agreed, and then she told me she’d gotten a call from the TSA letting her know she should expect a letter from them, requiring her to explain what happened in writing.  Unbelievable.