I recently flew from Atlanta Georgia to Halifax Nova Scotia and back. One silly incident with airport security in Halifax started me thinking. First let me state that the issue was precipitated by my own forgetfulness. It all started as a result of my carelessness, I knew better.
Going through the airport in Halifax, my carry on bag was stopped at x-ray. It was x-rayed a couple of times, a couple of supervisors looked at it, debated for a while, them I was pulled aside, with my bag. 2 people took everything out of it, including all the zippered side pockets. then stuffed everything back in in a big ball, nearly smashing my blood glucose measuring kit (I am a diabetic). They repeated this a couple of times, whispering among themselves and repacking my stuff even more messily each time. Oh, I was so wishing I had filled the case with some really smelly dirty socks or old fishing cloths. All the while they would not tell me what was the issue. They finally asked if there was a set of keys in the bag. I told them which zippered pocket my car keys were in; I tried to show them but they got really excited and warned me not to touch the bag. They found the keys but were not interested. Finally, after messing up all my stuff a few more times, the smartest one of the pair (I guess that was why he had Sargent’s stripes on his epaulets) asked me if there was another key chain in my bag with a bullet on it. I said sure, why didn’t you ask me that 10 minutes ago and save us all a lot of time. I told him to look for a small blue zippered case in side the top front zippered pocket of the bag. He got it and pulled out the key ring with my cottage key on it. Also, on the key ring was a replica of a pistol cartridge. It had a spent primer in the primer pocket, a fairly large hole drilled laterally through it for the key ring to pass through. It was obvious to even a casual observer that it was not a real cartridge and could never be turned into a real one without an inordinate amount of machining. However, Sherlock Holmes said I could not carry it on the plane. He said that I could either go back out of security and check the bag (which the airline would charge me $25 to do) or he could confiscate it. I pointed out to him that it was obviously not real and therefore not a threat. He said it didn’t matter, it still can not go on the plane. I also pointed out that it had gone through security at Atlanta and Toronto with no issues. His response was that they were both wrong and he was right, it can not go on a plane. Again he asked if I wanted to leave security and check the bag. I replied that it wasn’t worth anything, just throw it in the garbage. So he took it off the key ring (wouldn’t let me do it; after all it was a dangerous weapon) and he took it back to his office. I guess it was too dangerous to just toss it in the garbage. Now we can all rest a little easier because this alert security officer seized a key chain bobble and made Canada more secure because of it.
Again this was all initiated by my own stupidity. I know from past experience that Canadian law enforcement persons in all branches of enforcement are overly paranoid of anything that even hints of a connection to a firearm. I travel to my cottage in Nova Scotia at least once a year. I keep that little blue zip up pouch in my suitcase when I travel across the Canada/US boarder. I keep some Canadian money , a Canadian Credit Card, and the key to my cabin in Canada. When I cross the border into Canada I take out the little blue pouch and my wallet and I swap things out. I put Canadian dollars, credit card, and key in my wallet and put my US dollars, cards, and house key in the pouch and put it back in my suitcase. When I cross back into the US, I swap everything back. It is such a routine that I did not even think of it. The difference on this trip is that I flew instead of driving my car. They usually do no X-ray your bags when you drive across the boarder. Even if they did, the fake cartridge is perfectly legal everywhere except the Halifax airport. If I had my wits about me when I packed for this trip I would have taken the key Ring out and left it home. Once again I am foiled by my own stupidity.
This also reminded me of a similar incident at a Federal Government building in Atlanta a few years back. Like all Federal Buildings now, you had to empty your pockets and pass through a metal detector to enter the building. I put the contents of my pockets in the bin for inspection as required. On my key chain was a small plastic replica of a Glock pistol. It was about ¾ inch long, solid plastic, no moving parts, no holes, weighed a fraction of an ounce, easily x-rayed to indicate nothing hidden inside. Just a tiny piece of plastic shaped like a gun. The security guard picked it up and said “you can not take that in, it’s a gun”. I was totally amazed. A second guard looked at it and told the first guy that it was OK, not a restricted item. But the first guy now had to save face and could not show weakness by backing down. So he decreed again that it was a gun and could not enter the building. In this case there was no inconvenience, I just went back to the parking lot and put the key chain in my car then re-entered the building without incident.
However, the airport incident caused me to ponder just how unsettling the power bestowed on a group of poorly trained airport security officers is. They have more power over your life than any “real” law enforcement agency. They have the right to detain and search you on a whim, no probable cause required. They can fondle you, x-ray your most intimate parts, even strip search you without regard for your personal dignity. They can detain you as long as they want, make you miss your plane, just for the fun of it (You may say that this does not happen but I witnessed it first hand at the Atlanta airport when a TSA officer detained and searched the person in front of me simply because he overheard that person make a brief but very polite comment about the inefficiency of the current TSA staff). They can do all these things without and chance of consequences to themselves if they overstep the bounds of their authority; because there are no bounds to their authority. You the traveler, on the other hand have no recourse if you feel you have been abused or treated unjustly. Your only defense is to never enter an airport.
I realize that security at airports is required but I do lament the days when a person actually had some rights to privacy and dignity. Also we once had legal bounds on how aggressive law enforcement could be when enforcing the law. We also had recourse when law enforcement let their personal prejudices affect the way that they applied the law. In an airport, these principles are totally gone. It is a “police state” in the fullest extent of the definition of that term. Even sadder is that no one complains. In days gone by Americans were proud of the freedoms afforded to individuals in a “free” country and bragged about the fact that America had a comprehensive Constitution that protected the individual’s rights and freedoms. Now they quietly accept the fact that this same Constitution has been nullified and they meekly accept whatever humiliation is heaped upon them.
By the way, from now on, nothing on my key chains but flowers and unicorns; no wait, a unicorn’s horn is a deadly weapon; make that flowers and rainbows.