If there’s one thing we learn from Elmer Elevator in My Father’s Dragon (1948), a children’s novel by Ruth Stiles Gannett, it’s the importance of a well-packed knapsack. In fact, for a recent trip, my youngest daughter advised me to take what Elmer packed for his travels, including:
- Chewing gum
- Two dozen pink lollipops
- A package of rubber bands
- Black rubber boots
- A compass
- A toothbrush
- A tube of toothpaste
- Six magnifying glasses
- A very sharp jackknife
- A comb and a hairbrush
- Seven hair ribbons of different colors
- An empty grain bag with a label saying “Cranberry”
- Some clean clothes; and
It’s not a bad list, I guess, except for the jackknife, which I have no reason to carry and could result in an enormous headache for me if I tried to get it through airport security. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, prohibits a long list of items in carry-on luggage, including knives. The prohibition on sharp knives in carry-on luggage may seem obvious, but it’s a relatively new ban. Before the September 11, 2001 attacks, private companies were responsible for airport screening, and the Federal Aviation Administration and the airlines permitted passengers to carry blades up to four inches long onto planes (See the 9/11 Commission Report, page 84; PDF).
Since 9/11, for many of us, airport screening has become increasingly inconvenient and invasive. When I was regularly traveling between Philadelphia and Boston for law school, I was singled out for pat-down searches almost every time I flew. I switched to traveling by train, where I’ve also been searched, but not as invasively. More recently, my experiences with airport security haven’t been too bad, but that could be because I pack very lightly. I pay close attention to the TSA list of prohibited items, and I try not to fill my carry-on bag, if I take one at all.
Does it help? I have no idea, but perhaps it makes it easier for screeners to identify items by X-ray without having to search my bag manually, exposing my personal belongings to the world. The increased density of carry-on luggage–a byproduct of the imposition of higher fees for checked luggage–is an issue DHS Secretary John Kelly raised in an interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News while discussing potential TSA policy changes.
One of those changes would target a demographic to which most, if not all, of us belong (if you’re reading this blog): Readers.
In May, the TSA required passengers at a small number of airports to remove books from their carry-on luggage to be X-rayed, apparently to find thin, flat explosives hidden between the pages. This search might not seem like a big deal if you’re reading the newest James Patterson available at every airport or a classic Jane Austen, whose books I often carry with me. But what if you’re reading books about sensitive topics, such as books about surviving sexual abuse? What if you’re reading books in Arabic or books that oppose Donald Trump? Considering the TSA has previously detained a student (who was then arrested) because he had English-Arabic flashcards, I wouldn’t want to encourage them to routinely assess passengers’ reading material.
Thankfully, the TSA has decided against implementing this policy nationwide at this time (see the ACLU’s update here). I hope it stays that way.
*The image is a portion of the cover of the 50th Anniversary edition of Three Tales of My Father’s Dragon (Random House).