On August 18, an Arizona State PhD candidate by the name of Arijit, together with his wife, passed through TSA security screening. Arijit wore a satirical anti-TSA shirt designed by author Cory Doctorow in 2007, and was promptly harassed by the TSA.
The t-shirt depicts a screaming eagle holding unlaced sneakers and a water bottle surrounded by the words, “BOMBS ZOMG… ZOMG TERRORISTS… GONNA KILL US ALL ZOMG… ALERT LEVEL BLOODRED RUN RUN TAKE OFF YOUR SHOES MOISTURE.” According to Arijit, he had worn the shirt five times previously without incident.
Asked to explain the meaning of his t-shirt, Arijit told TSA officials that it mocked ”the security theater charade and over-reactions to terrorism by the general public — both of which we’re seeing right now, ironically.”
Writing on his blog, Arijit related what happened after he and his wife were informed that would not be boarding.
I was stunned. “You’re f—— kidding me,” I said in response. I pushed for an explanation of why the pilot was willing to overrule/ignore the judgment of the trained security officers. “Why can’t I board? What’s the concern?,” I asked.
His response left me even more stunned: “Just use your imagination.”
Wow. Let’s just consider that for a moment.
And this is where Arijit’s story should become truly enlightening to readers and air travelers everywhere:
In short, security screenings and any other evidence-based assessment method have been deemed irrelevant. Whatever I do, I am suspicious. Why? Not because the shirt I’m wearing presents some sort of legitimate threat. Not because I have weapons or potential bomb-making tools in my luggage. And not because I’ve shown any other indication of any sort that I’m a potential terrorist. Rather, the pilot and some Delta rep can project upon me their worst fears of what I am possibly capable of. If that’s the case, why even bother with the bloated security apparatus — since Delta pilots have discretion to kick off passengers who’ve passed multiple checks, after all?
Indeed, if the TSA determined Arijit and his wife were not threats after multiple screenings and questioning, then Arijit was not allowed to board because of a thought, an expression. In essence, his free speech was violated.
As Arijit blogged, “Given the fact that I’d already exhibited a sense of sarcasm and willingness to question authority, it’s certainly no leap in logic to expect I’d combine that unacceptable uppityness of mine with my brute strength to single-handedly takeover the plane mid-flight. You know, with mind bullets. Oh yeah, seems completely reasonable to me.”
The NFTA transit police then subjected Arijit to further questioning, asking him where he got the shirt. He answered that it had been a gift from his brother. They asked him where his brother lived. Arijit, thrown off by the irrelevant question, gave his answer, which made the police take pause.
What happened next was astonishing. As Arijit relates:
“You had to think about that one. How come?,” she asked. I explained he recently moved. “Where’d he move from?” “Michigan,” I respond. “Michigan, what’s that?,” she says. At this point, the main TSA agent who’d questioned me earlier interjected: “He said ‘Michigan’.” Unable to withhold my snark, I responded with an eye-rolling sneer: “You’ve never heard of Michigan?”
This response did not please her partner, a transit cop named Mark. Mark grabbed his walkie-talkie and alerted his supervisor and proceeded to request that he be granted permission to question me further in a private room. His justification?: “First he hesitated, then he gave a stupid answer.” Michigan, my friends, is a stupid answer.
And then, he decided to drop any façade of fair treatment: the veil was lifted, this was about who I was and how I looked: “And he looks foreign.”
There is much more to the tale, but in the interest of time and space, readers should read Arijit’s blog.
In it, Arijit raises an interesting point about how the pilot and Delta manager projected their fears onto Arijit. That their imaginations created the fear. As Arijit righteously points out, “As I posted to Twitter: ‘Using my imagination, I’m afraid the racist dingdongs flying @Delta will attack me mid-flight. Will @Delta pilot refuse to let them fly?’”
What is interesting here is not so much the racial profiling (after all the security screenings and questioning), but that fear prevails. It distorts and ultimately upends or, rather, short circuits any sense of the rational in people. That and the realization that we have some real grade-A morons working in airport security.
Some will say that Arijit was asking for it by wearing the t-shirt. These people are jackasses. Arijit was expressing an idea, a criticism. He did not deserve the treatment he got from irrational, bigoted idiots.