"There are 10^11 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it's only a hundred billion. It's less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers." ~ Richard Feynman
Fun With Freedom: Keeping Your Dignity With the TSA (Thousands of Sexual Assailants)
By Lawrence M. Ludlow.
Exclusive to STR
Ever since the blowback retaliation of 9/11, the government has subjected people trapped in the United States to a constant stream of propaganda, war-making tax-theft, police-state spying, and outright physical and sexual molestation at airports. Although oodles of self-deceived parrots (my apologies to that noble bird) dutifully repeat the doxology that we are being protected for our own good, many of us recognize it for what it is: a lockdown imposed by authoritarians.
For those of us who know the score, how do we travel by air without losing our dignity? How do we submit to the Thousands of Sexual Assailants (TSA) without appearing to give our tacit approval? How do we use airports without pretending—and helping others pretend—that we don’t know exactly what is going on? And how do we overcome the guilty suspicion that we are encouraging the government to descend further into barbarism by acting as if this were acceptable and normal? In short, how do we keep our dignity and integrity as libertarians, voluntaryists, and private-property anarchists?
The Razor’s Edge of Existentialism
I will not prescribe behavior. I do not want anyone to miss a flight, be “detained,” or even worse. I can only tell people what I do. I also want to credit one of my inspirations—Becky Akers at LewRockwell.com. For years, she has poked fun at the TSA with wit, sarcasm, and lacerating humor. Her essays remind us of something very important: Tyrants will lose their hold over people’s minds when we begin to laugh at them. By sharing my experiences and the principles that I use to shape my behavior while passing through “airport security,” you, too, may find a way to thread the existential needle—finding a way to adhere to your values as a libertarian while going about the business of life. This is my answer to a simple question: How do we hold on to what we value most about ourselves (our essence) while also maintaining our biological survival as living creatures (our existence)? Essence and existence. Essentia et esse (ens). Contrary to Ayn Rand’s poorly conceived claim, existentialism is not necessarily contrary to libertarianism and indeed can be an integral part of it. After all, our actions—moment by moment—define precisely who we are. Quite literally, we are what we do. And what could be more responsible and rational and libertarian than that? We all live on the razor’s edge defined by our aspirations and our constraints. It is—and always has been—the human condition.
Mental Preparation: Calling a Thing by Its Right Name
Before you arrive at the airport, remind yourself that you are about to be forcibly molested by a morally compromised soul—someone who will do objectionable things to innocent people for money. Some people join the military, some people teach in government schools, some join Congress or--even worse--the presidency. You are not a willing partner in this activity. Even though you may appear to be a willing participant by your mere presence at an airport and decision to fly, you are not a willing participant. You have been told you must do this by people who hold guns to the heads of the people who own the planes and, in turn, allow them to point those guns at you. You are about to have an adult lay his or her paws on your body—top to bottom, including all crevices and bulges. So don’t pretend you are not being treated like somebody’s cattle before an auction.
As an old Chinese aphorism puts it, “The beginning of wisdom is calling a thing by its right name.” This keeps your head on straight and reminds you of something important. You are not cattle. You are a human being—something with a mind and an ability to choose. You deserve respect. Those who do not respect human beings are, while acting in that fashion, criminals. They are holding guns, and the silly costumes they wear are only window dressing to hoodwink those who are easily duped—people who allow a superficial layer of clothing to obscure the true nature of the actions performed. It does nobody any good to pretend otherwise. Even Congressman Ron Paul called for a boycott of the airlines and expressed outrage and disgust with the TSA. Once you attain the proper mental attitude of self-respect, you are ready to descend into the bowels of the “secure area” and interact with its inhabitants.
Dress for Success
In the good old days—yes, I am now exposing my “pre-9/11 mentality”—I used to dress casually when flying: jeans, casual clothes, etc. Now I usually wear a sport coat and nice pants. Sometimes I wear jeans, but even they are “formal”—basic black with button fly (I am in an airport, after all!). The point is to be neat and well groomed. As I pointed out earlier, most people are very superficial, and first impressions play a big role in how you are perceived by others—both TSA agents and by your fellow passengers. And remember: your fellow passengers are your life-insurance policy. You want them to empathize with you. So don’t wear filthy clothes that are torn, unkempt, or ill-fitting. You don’t have to look like a stuffed shirt, but you do want to look like the kind of person who would be instantly welcomed into anyone’s home without a second thought.
Look civilized. Wash your hair. If you are a man, shave. If you are a woman, be attractive and appear to be innocent. Do not try to look dangerous, like you get into bar fights, or are in the habit of sleeping under bridges. Don’t smell bad (although it will probably reduce your chances of being strip searched!). You want the TSA to know instinctively that there’s gonna be hell to pay if they step out of line with you. And they won’t feel that way if other people don’t like the way you look. I didn’t make the world the way it is; a wholesome appearance if vital to airport success. If you are a slob, you may not be able to pull this off. If you are one of those men who has scraggly, filthy facial hair, an absurd looking goatee that belongs on a goat, abandon hope. This will not work for you. I always trim my beard and mustache. Look in the mirror—right now. Do you pass the test? If you don’t, you have probably become too accustomed to looking like a slob to pull this off. You are engaging in street theater here, so dress the part. Clothes make the man—or woman.
Listen to Your Fellow Passengers
While standing in the security line and waiting to get interrogated and groped, you will be surprised what you overhear people saying—especially to their children. Some years ago, I heard a mother explain to her young daughter that she would soon have to remove her shoes and be “looked at” by the TSA troglodytes (my word, not hers). I asked this mother a simple question: “Do you ever wonder if, by encouraging your child to “get used to” the idea of being physically caressed by a stranger that you are predisposing her to become a molestation victim?” When I asked this question, I didn’t do it in an accusatory fashion. I tried to appear as if it occurred spontaneously. No “attitude” is necessary. The more innocent your question sounds, the better. And if others nearby hear it as well, so much the better. This alone can redeem your entire travel experience; you have planted a seed of doubt. By the way, the mother in this incident ignored me. But I’m sure she filed my question away in her head. It will remain there forever.
The Decision Point: Which Line for Me?
Eventually you will be next in line to either (1) walk through a metal detector and experience the pat-down, which used to be called “opting out” or (2) walk into the Porno-Tron back-scatter X-ray machine (thanks, Thomas DiLorenzo for the correct technical term: Porno-Tron) that will display an image viewed by government goons. You should have made up your mind about your choice long in advance. I never go through the Porno-Tron because I try to minimize my exposure to unnecessary X-rays. And I don’t trust the government telling me it is “safe,” whatever that means. And please don’t split hairs with me by Googling up how many X-rays pass through my body during a transcontinental flight. That kind of excuse-manufacturing leads directly to the concentration camp; it also indicates Stockholm Syndrome.
This is where you can have the most fun. But you must always conduct yourself in a way that can be defended if witnesses are questioned or if your behavior is recorded by an audio or video device. That’s why your attitude is so important. Be confident, assured, and pleasant. You have the high ground. And show it in your voice. Speak clearly and with a matter-of-fact assumption that any sane person would instantly agree, and look for opportunities to make TSA people ashamed of their actions. Remember: These people actually applied for these jobs, and there is nothing wrong with you pointing out the obvious in a transparent and embarrassingly clinical way. You do not have to call names. You do not have to be belligerent. You do not have to be threatening or sound angry or even have the appearance of condemnation. But you certainly can exhibit surprise, disgust, revulsion, and matter-of-fact descriptions of exactly what is taking place—addressing the actions, not the person (at least not until you have your shoes back on and can disappear into the crowd after launching a final barb).
Here’s a sample of what I have said to TSA agents at the “decision point” on numerous occasions:
- “I don’t want to go through the X-ray Porno-Tron machine. I would rather be molested right here by the TSA agent in front of everyone, where I can feel safe.”
- “I’m opting out. Where do I go to be publicly molested and have a TSA agent feel my body? I don’t like that naked X-ray Porno-Tron machine.”
- “I’m opting out. Where do I stand for the TSA agents while they rub their hands all over my body? I don’t like that machine that takes naked pictures and displays them for people sitting in a dark room” (implication: with their pants around their ankles).
- “Where do I go to be molested? I don’t like those Porno-X-Ray machines.”
Say these things in a reasonable, clear voice—as if you were saying, “I heard it is raining outside today.” The appearance of innocence is vital, but be prepared to stick by your statement. Don’t bumble and try to take it back when challenged.
That’s why being mentally prepared in advance is so important.
At this point, the TSA agents will do one of the following:
They will act like Sergeant Shultz in the old Hogan’s Heroes sitcom and pretend nothing is happening. In this case, they will point or tell you to “stand over there and wait.” Be prepared for a slight delay of about five minutes. And if you feel you have been waiting too long and are being “punished” for your audacity, don’t be afraid to repeat your question in a nice, clear easily heard voice by saying things like:
- “When do I get molested? I’m still waiting.”
- “I’ve been here for five minutes and I don’t see any molesters yet. Where are they?”
- “Excuse me, but I was told to wait here to be molested by a TSA agent. Where is he?”
- “I’ve been waiting here for some time. Are you going to molest me or will somebody else do it?”
Usually things go smoothly, and my narrative provides some mild entertainment and “sanity reminders” for those around me. I once had a TSA agent who actually chuckled when I said this. It is a rare government employee who is open about the absurdity of the situation; I’m sure he won’t last long in that job—he was way too self-aware. He knew exactly what was going on. He simply accepted that he had a dehumanizing job and was not interested in pretending otherwise. I couldn’t help flashing him a smile. We both knew the Emperor’s New Clothes were a scam—or should I say scan?
Pushback from the TSA
On one occasion, an officious, self-important woman who looked like she was sucking lemons said with disdain, “You go over there.” She waved the back of her hand at me and jerked her head in the direction I was supposed to go. I didn’t like her scowl, so I repeated my question: “Are you talking to me? You want me to stand over there to get molested?” She actually said this: “You don’t have to repeat yourself. I heard you the first time.” Clearly she didn’t like being put on the defensive. So I gave it one last go: “Oh, so you DO want me to go over there to be molested. I just want to be sure that I’m following your directions so I go to the right location to be squeezed by you and your friends.” The key is to annoy the TSA agent but not to hold up the line of waiting passengers. You don’t want to make yourself into the enemy by delaying anyone’s travel plans. You want them on your side—even if you have to sound a bit slow on the uptake. But remember that you are on the side of the angels.
In November 2013, I was confronted after asking this question at the Long Beach airport in California. One of the sexual assailants was a pudgy, grey-haired man about my age (closer to 60 than 50). He may have been a supervisor, and he employed what he thought was an intimidating Voice of Authority. In a SouthPark-inspired bark, he snapped out the following challenge: “What did you say?” Apparently this technique had worked in the past. But not today! Because I was psychologically prepared, I replied without hesitation in a confident tone louder than before: “I said I don’t want to go through your Porno-Tron machine. Where do I go to be molested instead? Did you hear me this time?” I inhaled deeply as if about to repeat my statement in an even louder voice, but he already had crumbled. He was so accustomed to sheering sheep that he simply caved in when a human voice answered back—losing face in front of more than 20 people. It ruined his morning but made mine.
Consummating the Inspection
As you watch the TSA agent don his blue-latex gloves for a poke and a squeeze worthy of Nurse Jackie, remember that he or she is the transgressor, and this is your chance to kick it up a notch. They will invariably explain what they are about to do to you. When they are finished explaining, it’s okay to breathe a disgusted sigh. This puts them on the defensive. They need to know their place in the chain of being—and it’s not one of the upper links. They may even ask you a question—either before or during the pat-down: “Are you comfortable with this?” My response is always, “Of course not. You are going to molest me in public.” A feisty TSA agent will remind you that you are free to leave at any time, but don’t take the bait. Respond immediately with a level-headed counter: “No, I have to travel—even if it means being handled by someone who actually wanted this job.” You don’t have to escalate beyond this. During the rest of the pat-down, they may ask for your “permission” in other ways. Rinse and repeat.
Once they have completed their explorations and you have put your shoes back on, you can throw out a final non-profane remark as you walk quickly away. I have said the following things:
- “I wonder if your mother imagined you would do this for a living when you were a little boy.”
- “What kind of a person would apply for a job like this?” Ewww.
- “They can always find someone low enough to do this kind of thing.”
- “There are always people who’ll do anything for money.” Ewwww.
Some of my friends have suggested that I should pretend to sensually enjoy the pat-downs, and we have had a few laughs acting out this scenario. As you get older, you lose your inhibitions about these things, and the idea of replaying that scene at Katz’s Delicatessen in the film When Harry Met Sally seems like fun. To be successful, it would have to be a nearly silent grunt shared as a private moment between me and my TSA molester. But I could never keep a straight face for long. Nonetheless, it is something to aspire to. Please write if you have ever done something like this. I love inspirational stories. And I don’t always want to be the only one doing this kind of thing. It would be something to tell the grandchildren.
Kids, Don’t Try This at Home: When Challenged About Forbidden Items
In 2012, at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, I was returning to San Diego by plane after driving to Chicago in my car. After returning to San Diego, I planned to drive a rental truck—again back to Chicago as part of my relocation to that city, and I wanted to use my crook-hook steering-wheel lock during that truck trip. So I packed the two large metal pieces of the crook hook into my carry-on. The airline had just instituted a baggage-checking fee—a $35 charge that I wanted to avoid. The crook hook only cost about that much, so I thought I would take it with me in my small bag and take my chances with the TSA. Alas, the ever-vigilant Thousands Standing Around (thanks, Jim Bovard) foiled my dastardly plan of crook-hook mayhem in the skies. The metal detector spotted it, and the first-responders took decisive action.
The luggage trolls took about five minutes trying to fish it out of the bottom of my carry-on. I don’t know why it took them so long, but it did. They told me I couldn’t bring it aboard the plane and must check it with my luggage. I said I didn’t want to pay the fee. They said that if I don’t, they will confiscate it. I immediately described what was taking place: “You are stealing from me. That is my private property, and you want to steal it from me.” Immediately, one of the two TSA agents grabbed a microphone and called out on the PA system: “Accusation of theft! Supervisor assistance requested.”
The supervisor came over and asked me about the theft, and he denied that they were stealing from me. I explained what theft was—taking my property without my permission. He then tried to reason with me—telling me it was for my own safety. I told him that I was only 5’6” and weighed less than half of anyone around me. I also pointed out that two TSA agents had difficulty extracting this wanna-be weapon of mass destruction from my luggage and that in a narrow aisle on a plane, I was unlikely to be any more successful or dangerous than they were now. We went back and forth for awhile, and I realized I had to give in to get to my flight on time. So I said: “I guess I have to get used to people like you stealing from me when I fly.” By this time, I was finished putting on my shoes and zipping my luggage up. As I walked away I couldn’t resist a final jab: “I’m keeping the crook-hook key, you low-life, so you won’t be able to use it anyway when you pack up all the loot and divide it up with your buddies at the end of your shift. Maybe you can use it as a marital aid.” And I quickly walked away before they could respond. They were all expert donut eaters, and I knew I could move faster—even with a carry-on bag. That was the closest I ever cut it. A key to successful travel is knowing when to de-escalate and live to ridicule another day. Call me a coward, but I giggled as I walked away, knowing they were too inept to chase a flock of runaway marshmallow peeps at Easter time.
The Gift of Reading
When I travel by air and have adequate time to prepare in advance, I print out extra copies of essays about the TSA—the kind they don’t want people to read. If the essays have provocative titles that grab the eye, so much the better. Personally, I use Becky Akers’ essays a lot. Just sit down in a chair in the waiting area, read them for a quick mood boost, and leave them on the chair for the next person to pick up. Repeat this as many times as you like. If you travel light, this is easy to do.
Don’t lose heart when you travel. Even the potentially degrading experience of travel in today’s Amurika can be put to good use.