Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Tender Mercies of the TSA

“If you are traveling with children, please secure your own oxygen mask first before assisting your children with theirs.”

These are part of the rote but necessary safety instructions given by airline attendants at the beginning of all commercial flights. Everyone who travels by air more than once a year knows the entire safety routine by heart, which is why the attendants at Southwest Airlines can get away with spicing it up with comic relief variants, such as one that I heard recently on a flight from Cleveland to Baltimore:

“If you are traveling with children, what were you thinking?!?!””

I got quite a charge out of that one perhaps because of its special applicability to my wife and me. We not only travel with children, but very often with our autistic children, a surefire guarantee to turn any vacation into an adventure.

We travel to Italy often. Other than the fact that we love the place, we have lots of family there with whom we want to keep in touch as much as possible. The first time we went as a family in 1994, our then eight year old Luke did not let his autism keep him from having a great time; consequently we all had a wonderful time. We attempted a repeat performance in 2003, this time with two autistic children. That did not go quite as well. In any event, by now it has become old hat to us, but never without an adventure.

For the third year in a row, Susan and I are traveling to Italy with Angela (our youngest) in tow, and this time our adventure started even before we boarded the plane. We didn’t expect any incidents at airport security, as Angela is already well experienced with the tender mercies of the TSA. She even knows to take her shoes off while standing in line to go through the metal detector. She was sandwiched in line in between Susan and me, and I had already gone through first and was well on my way to retrieve our shoes, belts and carry-on luggage when I heard buzzers and bells going off behind me. Of course Angela was not wearing anything metal or anything else that would set off an alarm. She just decided to drag her hands against the walls of the screening device as she was going through. Though startled by the alarms and flashing lights, she was willing to try again when instructed to do so, only to set it off again as she did the exact same thing as before.

She refused to go through a third time and was starting to get agitated, which caused us a little problem. You see, autism or not, special needs or not, rules are rules, and the TSA was insisting that they were going to be followed to the letter. Not that they were nasty about it. They were very patient and understanding and were doing everything they could to accommodate both Angela and her mother (who displayed an even greater amount of patience, in stark contrast to me as I was grumbling under my breath on the other side of security). They were willing to give her plenty of time to calm down until she was willing to try again, but the bottom line was that “try again” she must. She was not going to make it through security until she had been properly screened.

After about twenty minutes of unsuccessfully coaxing her through the metal detector, TSA finally decided to take her aside and try to detect metal with a wand. She did not care for that either. A supervisor came along and asked if she could frisk her manually. It was not a very thorough frisk, as Angela can be quite a wiggle worm, but the supervisor finally declared that she was satisfied that Angela was not a terrorist or even an unwitting accomplice.

So what is wrong with this picture? I generally understand the need to scrutinize everyone equally. “Profiling” is supposedly a bad thing. But is it really necessary to treat the following groups of people with the same level of scrutiny?

1. Invalid grandmothers in wheelchairs;

2. Families traveling with children

3. Non-verbal autistic teenagers of any race

4. Middle Eastern males traveling with one-way tickets and no luggage?

Does it not occur to the TSA and the political rule makers that the latter demographic has been responsible for 100% of the terrorist attacks against Americans?

To be truthful, I am not sure I have a fully formed opinion on the subject. It does occur to me that some terrorists have been so sick minded--if it is even possible to determine degrees of depravity among people who have already decided it is okay to blow up innocent men, women and children in the name of God-- as to place a suicide bomber vest on a mentally handicapped female. But surely there has to be a level of common sense that says, “Look, these people traveling to Italy with their handicapped daughter are not intending to blow up an airplane. They just don’t fit the profile. “

Oops, I just used a politically incorrect word.

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