Running the gantlet of Homeland Security


Albuquerque’s international airport, dubbed The Sunport, ranks as one of the smaller and friendlier airports around. That’s important for Westerners like me.

Since traveling became an uncertain business, being met by “our” people behind the counter, in shops and at the gate, goes a long way to ease nervousness for infrequent flyers. This is particularly true when traveling at holiday time. We count on knowing that the person driving the shuttle, inspecting bags or sweeping floors could be our neighbor, or maybe even related by marriage.

That we might meet our neighbor is probably one reason some of us leave certain things at home. Sure, what we pack is related to the persnickety and always changing requirements of Homeland Security. But I imagine some of us just don’t want Mildred from down the street on suitcase duty.

So you can imagine my embarrassment when I was caught carrying contraband at Albuquerque’s security checkpoint, which is what happened on a recent trip to Washington, D.C. I realized I was in trouble when my carry-on suitcase went back and forth in the X-ray machine long enough to have a radioactive half-life approaching 1,000 years. Any doubt a security issue had arisen vanished when the stone-faced inspector -- not my neighbor Mildred – demanded in a loud, authoritative voice: "Whose bag is this?” Then pointing at me, she said, “Step this way. Stand behind the yellow line. Do not touch the bag. Is there anything in this bag that may harm me?"

I panicked. I had no clue what might be in there to cause alarm. I stepped forward tentatively, mumbling words the agent interpreted as license to examine my belongings. She extracted several items, including an oversized ballpoint pen she had difficulty opening. My offer to show her how was rewarded by a sharp reminder to "Stay behind the line! Do not touch the bag or anything coming out of the bag!” She went back to the pen-puzzle. Finally, persistence prevailed, proving a ballpoint pen is sometimes just a ballpoint pen.

She continued searching my luggage. At last, the culprit was found: my toiletry case. Her gloved hands extracted the case from the nearly empty suitcase with the precision of a heart surgeon. The inspector opened it as if she were about to cut into the exposed organ. From the toiletry case she removed, deftly, the concealed weapon that had caused the initial alert: two-inch-long cuticle scissors.

I was given the choice of taking them back to the car and running the security check point gantlet again or allowing her to confiscate the offending item. I offered a third choice in good faith, suggesting she take the scissors home. Wrong thing to suggest. "We do not take these items home,” she barked.

Then I was given the privilege of repacking my bag in the 30 seconds left before my flight ascended to the heavens. You bet I threw everything back in.

I settled into my seat, conjuring weird scenarios. I saw myself clambering over two seatmates to get to the aisle, balancing on the seat arm, dragging my bag out of the overhead storage bin, pulling out my cuticle scissors and attacking a seat. I nearly fell into a blissful, sleep when a startling realization hit me: The security woman had not seized every potential weapon I carried. I had my belt. My shoelaces. I struggled to keep my mind off the mayhem I could still cause. I cinched my seatbelt and prayed that the flight would be over soon. We arrived without incident caused by any unbalanced, infuriated or malevolent passenger. I thanked my stars that a person across the aisle had not used his laptop computer as a battering ram.

Albuquerque may no longer be the small, “Ah shucks” cow town I imagine it once was. It has – some say out of necessity – become part of an America always playing catch-up to acts of aggression. But keeping people on edge, encouraging them to be suspicious of each other, and using public funds to confiscate cuticle scissors seems to me no way to ensure public safety or promote peace. Couldn’t common sense serve the cause of democracy much better?

Ross Putnam is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( A minister for the United Church of Christ for 25 years, he and his wife now have a private counseling practice in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Feb 08, 2008 04:24 PM

To the editor: 

Thank you for the account of Ross Putnam's harrowing homeland security travails in "Running the gauntlet of Homeland Security". Such stories deserve to be turned into a national chorus of laughter except for the fact that the subplot is no laughing matter.

At what point do we realize we're being subjected willingly to this psy-ops exercise which originated out of our own government's actions abroad and inactions within?

What if we all just decided this exercise in behavioral conditioning is sufficient deterrence to not fly at all?

We're constantly referred to as "consumers" (not citizens) by our own government, so maybe if that government simply ignores "voter mandates" at the ballot box and national polls re-expressing those concerns, just maybe, it will listen when we quit "consuming"?

Besides, our planet could use the break from all those all-consuming emissions. 

Feb 08, 2008 04:35 PM

Thank you for articulating the utter stupidity of our responses to terrorism—real or imagined. It takes only a bit of imagination to see how a simple ball point pen is just as deadly as a cuticle scissor, and a small leap after that to realize that our hands and feet and cranium are as deadly as those, to those who know how to use them (including any number of 8-12 year old karate students).

There is no security that is not based in trust and civility... anything, including our moronic attempts at screening passengers, that threatens trust and civility merely adds to the malaise (and the cost)... which is of course exactly what they are trying to achieve. It's just sad that it actually makes us more vulnerable should an actual bad person exist and threaten us.

Not holding my breath. Thanks again.

Feb 11, 2008 11:40 AM

Beautifully written article,many of us have experienced something similar, maybe not so articulately, except:  does Spellcheck not know "gauntlet" ?  It is an archaic term, of course, but if one uses it at all, one should spell it correctly...esp. in a header.  Picky, picky.

Feb 11, 2008 11:41 AM

Sometimes It all seems so silly- taking your shoes off, confiscating seemingly innocent objects- until you sit at 35,000 feet and realize someone in the row in front of you is becoming agitated and is muttering in a strange language and moving far too much in the seat. 

Now you begin to pray that the people at the security point didn't miss anything.  You pray he isn't carrying sissors or a knife or a bomb made to look like something else.  You pray that there is a marshall aboard and he is seeing the same thing you are. 

I've been there- more than once.  I live in the East and travel much of the country on business.  I am an Anglo-Saxon  and it is rare to get on an airplane in the east and have everyone on the plane look like me.  Do I glance twice at the passengers who look as if they may be from another country?  Darn right I do.  Do I sometimes resent the throughness of the security people?  Yes, sometimes it seems as if their sole purpose is to make me miss my flight, but at those times when I am high above the earth with no place to run and fear grips my heart, I am grateful for them. 

Feb 11, 2008 11:46 AM

When creating FEAR is the main priority of the government this is what you get.  As an X pat from Chicago you can imagine my seeing on tv the signs going into Chicago with the "alert colors".  What are they thinking????  could only be,  SPREAD THE FEAR then Control.  Like an 84 year old English woman who was made to stand for 2 hours in NY asked me.  "Does anybody there THINK at all anymore?"  

Feb 13, 2008 04:49 PM

Thanks. I had a great little miniature Swiss Army knife expropriated in ABQ in 2006. It had been in my Eagle Creek bag since 9/11 when on 9/14 I flew from Harare to London. It stayed in my bag from London to Helsinki and back and then on to Baku and Instanbul. It then accompanied me to LAX from London. (This item has by now been in and out of Heathrow six times and Stansted and Istanbul twice.) I flew from LAX to ABQ and never got questioned. All this was in late 2001.

By the time I got to the airport for a flight to San Diego in 2006 I had forgotten the little knife was there. I had the exact same experience as Ross. With the same result. You never know what these guys will spot or when.

Feb 18, 2008 03:00 PM

As for "gantlet" vs. "gauntlet": My American Heritage dictionary makes it clear each is a variant of the other--and, therefore, either is acceptable, especially in the "run the ga[u]ntlet" expression.  Indeed, the "Usage" note in the above-mentioned dictionary says "Gantlet is . . . still considered preferable by some authorities and mandatory by others...."

Hilary Kendrick