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Terrorists With Boring Names

Peggy Noonan seems to have hit a nerve with a lot of bloggers regarding the uselessness of the TSA.

I am almost always picked for extra screening. I must be on a list of middle aged Irish-American women terrorists. I know a message is being sent: We don’t do ethnic profiling in America. But that is not, I suspect, the message anyone receives. The message people receive is: This is all nonsense. What they think is: This is all kabuki. We’re being harassed and delayed so politicians can feel good. The security personnel themselves seem to know it’s nonsense: they’re always bored and distracted as they go through my clothing, my stockings, my computer, my earrings. They don’t treat me like a terror possibility, they treat me like a sad hunk of meat.

While I am not a middle aged Irish-American woman, I must be on a similar list for people with sadly common and/or interchangeable names. I have flown three times in the past two months. The Christmas holiday trip was no big deal (despite idiotically packing about ten pounds of silverware in my carry-on bag…long story, but strangely, I got through with only a post-X-ray hand search of said bag). But three weeks back, I was unable to check in on Continental at DIA…the clerk had to bend over backwards to locate my reservation in the system, and when she printed out the ticket, I could see a lightbulb come on as she read the mysterious alphanumeric gibberish. She didn’t bother to explain, though, she just said it wasn’t a problem — after she checked my passport closely. The same thing happened at IAH on the return flight, but this time the clerk explained to me (somewhat surreptitiously) that it was because my name was flagged for some reason, probably because it is so common and someone with a similar name is “on the list”. Again, she checked my passport closely, and that was that.

This afternoon, the same thing happened when I tried to check in at American Airlines for a flight to Houston. This time, the clerk came right out and said, unsolicited, that “that sometimes happens with very common names” (and again, she checked my passport very closely). But, she said, she would do something (I don’t know what) to “take the flag off” in the “system”, so that I wouldn’t have the same problem on my return flight. We’ll see on Sunday whether it worked, or whether she actually flagged me for the extra-special latex-glove pre-flight once-over just for her own sick amusement.

And this must have been the sister of the guy who waved me into the security line at IAH three weeks ago:

After a half hour in line I get to the first security point.

“Linfah,” says the young woman who checked my ID.

“I’m sorry?”

“Linfah.” She points quickly and takes the next person’s ID.

“I’m so sorry, I don’t understand.”

Now she points impatiently. How stupid could I be?

Line Five. Oh. OK.

In my case, the security guy was completely unintelligible — I’m not sure the sounds emanating from him were even syllables. After he repeated himself twice, I finally gave up, shrugged and smiled, and walked to the X-ray belt, figuring if I was doing something wrong a guard who was actually capable of forming coherent utterances would correct me. Amazing. Not only because TSA would hire people who are unable to communicate and place them in roles where they interact with the public, but also that there are so many people like that nowadays.

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