An Open Letter to the Dallas TSA

Today I’m flying back to Boston from Dallas.  As a matter of fact, as I write this I’m on the plane and we’re heading from the gate to the runway.  I was surprised on my way down here how dramatic my process with the TSA wasn’t.  The TSA is pretty much my nightmare of a government agency.

Today, when I went to my screening to leave Dallas, I lived my nightmare.

I don’t know how many people enjoy the thought of being manhandled in public, but despite all evidence to the contrary (I like being the center of attention, I’m a performer, I have no observable sense of shame, etc.) I am not one of them.  The first time I saw a news story years back about backscatter x-rays and pat downs I went into a full on panic attack.  Nope, no thanks.

I’m going on a tangent here for a moment to say that the science says that backscatter x-rays are dangerous, bad for people with a familial history of skin cancer (me), bad for people with autoimmune diseases (me), and particularly bad for people with skin diseases (also me).  The long term effects of the devices hadn’t been tested and peer reviewed before they went to market, and the stories of their images being mocked and leaked are legion.

I always knew that if I went to an airport that employed backscatter only I would be forced to refuse and I’d get a patdown.  The thought terrified me and so I stopped flying.  For years I traveled only on land and everything was fine.  Then in September I flew to Houston for Jay’s memorial service.  As I was on the TSA pre-check list everything was fine.

Today was different.  Today I wasn’t given a choice.  For some reason DFW employs backscatter millimeter wave only and uses metal detectors for young children and one adult traveling with them.  The first problem was that the TSA clerk checking IDs didn’t recognize my Massachusetts ID as being valid.  Yes, it’s old, but it’s clearly me, it has my name, height, eye color, hair color, and even my SSN on it.  It has the MA state seal hologram, a bar code I can still use to buy Sudafed, the works.  The fact that it’s from the 90’s shouldn’t matter.  Nobody in Houston batted an eyelash at it back in September.

Dallas TSA guy apologetically said he had to call a supervisor.  That took 20 minutes.  When she finally arrived she asked me if I had a driver’s license.  (Pro Tip, you can’t have a driver’s license and a state ID, it’s illegal.)  I told her, “No, I don’t.  I’m an epileptic and I can’t drive.”  She and young clerk guy looked at me like I had 3 heads.  Considering I had just spent the previous 3 days talking about epilepsy, explaining what it’s like to live with epilepsy, and doing education and outreach, I should have been unsurprised.  Somehow I think I was too tired to be able to handle it.

I get it that it is pretty much impossible to live in a place like Dallas and not drive, but I live in Boston, the place I’m flying BACK to.  Boston has imperfect public transit (I’m being polite, the T is a disaster most of the time) but it gets me where I need to go.  Eventually.  The thing that struck me, aside from the fact that these TSA people didn’t have a book to go to where they could look up various types of IDs by state, was the assumption that it was somehow my fault or a failing of mine that I didn’t have a driver’s license to make their lives easier.

Here’s the thing.  I had just finished 3 days talking, educating, performing, and meeting with others about epilepsy.  What I do not need is some back water idiot throwing around her TSA power and ignorance and treating me like somehow I’m inconveniencing her because I have a disease that means that I cannot safely drive a car and, therefore, have a driver’s license.  People like her and attitudes like that are why the TSA have a bad reputation.

She asked me how old my ID was.  I said it was late 90’s or early 2000’s.  She cut me off and then asked me if I had another ID.  I told her I had an expired passport.  I haven’t been out of the country since about 2005.  She looked at it, sighed, and then said I’d have to have “extra” screening.  Yay.

This meant a round in the millimeter scanner, no way to opt out.  Then my things were carried for me over to two tables.  Two very nice women, I wish I had gotten their names, I was kind of in a daze as the minutes to my departure ticked away, went through my things and gave me a full body pat down.  And when they say full body, they’re not kidding.

Surprisingly, I didn’t freak out.  It may have been the fact that the woman doing the pat down was very kind, made eye contact, explained everything she was doing, and didn’t make me feel like a criminal.  The woman going through my bags kept up a steady stream of conversation with me, listened to what I had to say, and as I could see what she was doing, I felt confident that my belongings were safe.

Surprisingly, I came out of the experience not feeling violated.  At least, not by the pat down and bag search.  The treatment by the two TSA clerks at the beginning was another matter entirely.  They were incompetent, rude, and ignorant.  To be honest, there are many reasons why someone might not have a driver’s license.  There are some people in cities like NYC that never need them.  Some people cannot afford a car, others cannot afford the gas, insurance, etc.  Still others have medical conditions other than epilepsy that keep them from driving.  This is why states, all 50 of them, have state IDs available.

So, to that clerk and that manager, I’m terribly sorry that the fact that I can’t drive and that I have an old but perfectly legitimate ID made you have to think at work today.  To the ladies who had to go through my things and pat me down, sorry about the dirty laundry, I hope my deodorant was working, and I hope you can find a new job soon where you don’t have to infringe on people’s civil liberties because the people at the front are idiots.


ETA: 4/7/16 I am posting this now because, while I was able to upload the draft as the plane landed, by the time I got home I pretty much had the energy to unpack and go to bed.  I didn’t have the energy to add the links, tag, and proof read.

Tonight or tomorrow there will be a post about Dallas hotel art.

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