Saturday, June 16, 2007

Not Their Good Side

Since I study the rhetoric of government websites, I have to say something about the new addition to the Transportation Security Administration website, a feature called MythBusters. Use of a trademarked Discovery Channel name aside, it reminds me of the White House feature Setting the Record Straight, which I have called a form of spin control. I gave the TSA one of my un-prizes at the beginning of the year for their nonsensical online FAQs about the no-fly list, and it seems like their web presence hasn't much improved during the intervening period.

A lot of people are going public with their complaints against the TSA and the airlines, by using blogs to publicize incidents of harassment involving travelers. For example, this open letter to Jet Blue complains about a passenger being removed from a plane with little justification.

In the MythBusters case, it seems that it was a particular item on the mega-blog BoingBoing complaining about the ordeal of a mother with a toddler gripping a sippy cup during a run-in with liquid-panicked security officers that inspired the TSA to create this special site.

What's amazing to me about the longer of the two videos is that the TSA actually thought that it would make them look good to the public. Even without sound, it shows a minute-by-minute harassment operation of a clearly frazzled woman with a small child with obviously preoccupying needs, as Mark Frauenfelder also points out in his blow-by-blow commentary. For much of the footage the woman is actually being humiliated on her knees. Now there's no way that I -- as a feminist who has spent a lot of time in airports, some of it with small children -- am going to look at a woman forced to scrub floors in a public place by men in uniform and say, "Gee, that makes me feel so good about my government."

Frankly, I doubt that scenario would have happened to a man. Just last week I was going through a TSA checkpoint in the Southwest terminal at LAX behind a white middle-aged businessman with a Southern accent who couldn't seem to go through the metal detector without causing the device to register. Instead of being apologetic about holding up the line (which is what I would have done), he became indignant with the screening and hurriedly stormed right past the stunned female screener, despite his obvious failure to comply with being cleared as weapon-free before boarding an aircraft.

In other news related to this wet and wild side of global threats, Bruce Schneier, a security expert who has written a lot about the moisture mania of the TSA, recently handed out his prize to the winner of his Second Annual Movie Plot Threat Contest. Of course, I first heard about peroxide bombs long before the media hullabaloo from super-cool camera obscura creator George Keene, when I was here, way back in the days when you could still take toothpaste on a plane.

Update: The Washington Post now has coverage of the incident at "Sippy Cup Spill Sparks Tiff at National Airport." No wonder the online game Airport Security won the jury prize at Games for Change this month.

Another Update: Still more TSA vs. the Blogosphere action as the week progresses. Sex columnist Violet Blue wrote a how-to column aimed at passengers, particularly those attending gay pride events this month, at "The TSA Hates Your Vibrator." At the bottom of the essay posted on her own site, she resposted an e-mail from a TSA officer, which opens with a diatribe against her depiction of agency practices:

Your column ridiculing the TSA contains exaggerations and misinformation. The column may be funny to some, but many of your words will confuse or mislead the surprising number of passengers who are uninformed about airport safety regulations. We are there to protect you from a terrorist attack.

The e-mail from Tim Bottorff doesn't seem like official correspondence, unfortunately, since it mentions Peaches Christ in its prose.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hassled? She deliberately took off the top and dumped the water on the floor, probably in a "there, happy now?" attitude, and what's really telling, she turned the stroller around to re-enter the line. Her intent was to ditch the water in a spiteful way and then get on the plane. It was appropriate that she clean up her own mess; I'm sure most parents would teach their tantrum-throwing children to do the same. Act like a child, get treated like one.

6:26 AM  
Blogger Lupton said...

My brother-in-law, graphic designer Abbott Miller, has dubbed the TSA regulations "The War Against Toiletries."

6:23 AM  

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