I used to have an awesome Swiss Army knife. It was given to me by my eldest sister as a 21st-birthday present. I had been wanting one for years, and considering the milestone birthday, and the fact that she’d first taken the time to have my initials engraved in the blade, it was an object to which I’d formed a particular sentimental attachment. It was shiny and compact; both beautiful and practical. And for more than a few years, I carried that handy little tool in my pocket at all times.
But as I passed through airport security in Seattle one day, my folded-up knife was stashed in a small inner pocket of my carry-on bag. I had completely forgotten it was there, and apparently, the TSA screeners never noticed it. I boarded my flight without incident, and for the rest of that trip, I was totally oblivious to the illicit little stowaway in my backpack.
That is, until it was time for me to fly home.
The more-alert TSA screeners at Newark’s airport detected the knife right away. The agents immediately pulled me aside to ask me what, exactly, this potentially lethal object was doing in my carry-on. I explained my honest oversight to them, and they seemed to understand. Nevertheless, they weren’t about to let me board a plane with that blade in my bag. I was presented with a choice: Go back and check my carry-on (and almost certainly miss my flight), or toss my knife into a sad receptacle full of forbidden items discarded by other absent-minded travelers. In the heat of the moment, I made a snap-decision, and ruefully (almost tearfully) relinquished my treasured Swiss Army knife.
I’m sharing this sad tale because I recently read that the TSA is about to relax its restrictions for knives on planes. Today, it’s considered unsafe to carry any knife onto an aircraft. But next month, blades of a certain size will be perfectly fine. It feels kind of arbitrary to me. I mean, has something suddenly changed as far as the inherent risk posed by a two-inch blade? Or is the TSA telling us that flying would have been just as safe all along without a decade-long ban on pocket knives?
In other words, was losing my Swiss Army knife a noble sacrifice made for the greater cause of safer skies? Or was it just another degrading act of TSA security theater, serving only to coddle the reptilian brains of anxious travelers? I really don’t know.
As an anxious flyer myself, I readily admit to sometimes allowing myself to be soothed by hollow security gestures. (Whatever gets you through the flight, my friends.) But from the grounded comfort of my home office, I feel more free to rationally ponder the implications of these measures, and question whether they make us safer, or just make us feel safer.
I understand the original rationale behind the knife ban. And I realize that the line between genuine security, and the mere illusion of it, is a blurry one. I don’t pretend to know what it takes to keep a planeful of travelers safe.
But I do know that reactionary, emotion-based impulses frequently lead to less-than-reasonable decisions. (Heck, if all security decisions were based on my usual pre-flight emotions, the only objects allowed on planes would be donuts, Valium, and Captain Sully.) And useful or not, the security measures born in these rash moments seem to have exacted a troubling toll on the weary traveling masses.
So, with these policies subject to sudden and seemingly arbitrary reversal, it does seem reasonable to ask the overall question, “what for?”
Anyway, I’m not trying to get all mired in a controversial debate to which I bring zero expertise. And I really don’t mean to offer commentary from one side or the other. (I’ll leave that to The Onion.) I’m just saying, now that the TSA’s decided it’s safe to carry knives onto planes, I wish I could get my knife back.