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for people who care about the West

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 (hcn.org). 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 [email protected].