Airport Security Confiscates Rock

They already take away scissors. Can paper be far behind?

Here’s the story:

In retrospect, I suppose I could have put the grapefruit-sized specimen inside my sock, swung it around my head like a mace, charged the cabin and attempted to hijack the flight. This, of course, never occurred to me until the zealous inspector declared my rock a “dual-use” item.

“What, pray tell, is a dual-use item?” I asked. I’m afraid I chuckled just a little, causing her to glare, withhold a satisfactory answer and call her supervisor. He hefted my rock, scrutinized it for a moment, and agreed that my specimen was indeed a dual-use item, meaning a potential low-tech weapon. During those uneasy moments when I thought I would be detained, I wondered if a doctor’s stethoscope would also be declared a dual-use item, since it could be used to strangle a pilot.

We can’t keep weapons out of prisons. We can’t possibly keep them out of airports.

Posted on October 10, 2006 at 11:53 AM94 Comments


elwing October 10, 2006 12:26 PM

It’s only a matter of time before they take pencils and pens, and not let anyone with any kind of martial arts training on planes.

Rich October 10, 2006 12:29 PM

When one sees the ingenuity of weapons crafted withing prisons (posted on this blog recently) the number of improvised weapons which could be constructed within the “secure” part of an airport is effectively unlimited. … sigh

Tom October 10, 2006 12:30 PM

This is probably my favorite headline every. That is, after the article in my school newspaper titled “More students feeling six with change in season: Dorms turn into havens for colds and flus as L.A. temperatures from to 80s”

Tom October 10, 2006 12:30 PM

Oops shouldhave previewed… “More students feeling sick with change in season: Dorms turn into havens for colds and flus as L.A. temperatures from to 80s”

Jonathan Corbet October 10, 2006 12:35 PM

My favorite story: I once followed a guy who took a mandolin through the security checkpoint. He was told that his spare strings were a “dual use” item and would not be allowed on board. He asked if he could at least put them on the instrument and give up the old strings, and was allowed to do so, sitting with his back against the Xray machine and handing the old strings, one by one, to the waiting guard. He then boarded the plane with his new strings which, somehow, had been rendered harmless by being put into the the mandolin.

I thought about all the cables I was carrying in my backpack and kept my peace…

Davi Ottenheimer October 10, 2006 12:38 PM

Good example of the “tough and dumb” policies Obama was referring to recently.

Also a good example of downright pathetic profiling on the part of the screeners. A geologist with a rock on the way to a conference should mean something to an intelligent security system. With screeners like this, however, who needs enemies?

Bruce, I like your analogy to prisons. It makes a lot of sense, although I believe weapons in prison are usually made from things already present in the prison when prisoners arrive. Prisons also seem a lot more stable and easily entered when compared with a flying jet.

what is the world coming to October 10, 2006 12:39 PM

It’s a tough decision. Do you let Jet Li, martial arts wiz (at least in movies) and dangerous weapon or a middle-aged, balding, blond and blue-eyed Scandinavian-American geology professor with a pet rock onto an aeroplane. I vote to deport both of these unsavory characters.

My letter to Santa this year will only ask for one gift, that he put the names of all TSA big wigs onto the no-fly list. Then Kip and Co. can see what it feels like to be collateral damage. Did anyone see the TSA clowns on 60 minutes try to justify the no fly list and why it’s so screwed up?

David October 10, 2006 12:51 PM


An airplane is made of metals, plastics and wires, and even includes metal cans and glass bottles. These can all be fashioned into weapons.

Of course, there are ceramic knives that would easily pass security.

Smuggling is easy to do. We don’t have millions of illegal aliens or a growing illicit drug trade because it’s hard to smuggle things past security.

Belts can be used as a weapon, as can parts of laptops, pencils/pens, etc.

It’s interesting to note that the rock and most of these other weapons cannot be used for 9/11 style attacks if they remember to lock the cockpit doors. That was one very good measure taken and it didn’t require any stupidity or assuming that paying passengers are terrorists.

Alan October 10, 2006 12:53 PM

They have already taken our rocks and fire. The wheel is next!

And the TSA wonders why we think of them as neanderthals.

Bob October 10, 2006 1:15 PM

The stupidity of this is that it’s entirely arbitrary. Suspicions are raised only when the object is unexpected. There are few rocks and mandolins carried aboard, so they get flagged as dual use. There are countless belts, ballpoint pens, etc. so they don’t.

And yes, paper IS next. Anyone who’s ever had a paper cut knows it can slice like a knife. Knife == paper == weapon.

And if the in-flight movie was “La Femme Nikita”, would it have the pencil scene removed so as not to spread any dangerous information?

Geologist October 10, 2006 1:18 PM

In protest, I encourage all air travelers to carry a grapefruit-sized rock with them through the security checkpoint.

If the TSA gets used to it, they’ll be less afraid when real geologists travel.

If they don’t, they’ll be able to build a wall with all the masonry.

Rock on!

derf October 10, 2006 1:24 PM

I guess the next step is to check all bags and have us fly nekkid…but only after receiving a thorough, TSA approved enima.

X October 10, 2006 1:40 PM

I wonder when they are going to ban beer in a can. There are plenty of sharp edges in a twisted aluminum can. We will be drinking beer from a plastic bag in no time. I can almost visualize the golden hue of Budweiser in a double zipped locked bag; it would really look like piss then.

AlB October 10, 2006 1:42 PM

It makes you wonder if the people at Homeland Defense and the TSA have ever seen the TV series ‘MacGyver’ or ‘The Avengers’, any movie involving geniuses (i.e. ‘Real Genius’), martial arts types and even ‘Kill Bill’ (before the bride gets the Katana). The damage that can be caused without traditional weapons (sticks, stones, guns, bombs, etc.) is amazing.

Mr. Shine: Him Diamond. October 10, 2006 1:45 PM

Ceramic knives might not pass security as easily as some think — ceramics won’t set off the metal detector, but they do look dense to an x-ray.

Fred P October 10, 2006 1:48 PM

Back when I took a martial art, one of the courses I had taught us how to fight with a ballpoint pen as a weapon. (Yes, seriously; he advocated it as a cheap Yawara Stick varient). Simuarly, there are ones in cane/Han-bo fighting (any moderate-length stick), strangulation cords/devices (virtually any piece of clothing), and makeshift weapons (virtually anything).

Trying to keep any conceivable weapon off of an airplane is like trying to keep foreign air out of your country. Sure, with an extreme amount of annoyance, time, and effort, you might partially succeed some of the time, but you’d spend a lot less money, less effort, and cause less damage by improving the air quality in the first place.

Eejit October 10, 2006 1:48 PM


Been there done that. Pens were suddenly added to the UK’s banned items list, some days after the start of the ‘no-liquids’ crackdown in August.

Despite constant checks of the official lists we first discovered this at the airport. The check-in agent OK’ed my kids’ colouring pencils but the nearby agent checking in my parents thought pencils weren’t allowed. I told the kids to hang on to them, fearing their cries of boredom more than the potential confiscation and repercussions.

In the end the kids were too terrified to take the pencils out during the flight.

Weary October 10, 2006 1:48 PM

I have come across many tales of asinine decisions by airport security staff but perhaps you are being a bit hard on them this time. Here’s a question: If you had a choice between a fight with your bare fists or with the assistance of a hefty piece of rock, which you choose? I suspect most of us know that the rock is potentially an effective weapon. Some muggers use bricks to strike devastating surprise blows against their victims, who don’t get the chance to fight back.

Please don’t take this comment to mean that I think the current security hysteria is justified. I just wanted to point out that airline security have to do their job, even when the job is stupid. I bet any airport security worker who tried to do their job intelligently would soon be fired.

Anonymous October 10, 2006 1:58 PM

Look at it this way, Weary: Do you seriously think someone could successfully hold an aircraft hostage with nothing but a rock? Not happening.

mpd October 10, 2006 1:59 PM

In some ways, his argument is the same as that guy who says people with security clearances should get through security faster.

“Perhaps your tax dollars will be used by an internal think tank of agency hire-ups to ponder why on earth a geologist would travel with a rock.”

Of course geologists would travel with rocks. But how do we prove you’re a sane, peace-loving geologist and not a mad geologist who plans to take over the world with your rock?

Having said all that, I think it’s stupid to take away his rock but he probably should have checked it, especially after shampoo was banned. Maybe I’ve gotten suckered by the system, but to make my flights go easier I check anything that could possibly be construed as a weapon. I don’t even put golf discs (frisbees) in my carry-on after a friend got extra scrutiny for them.

Reasonable October 10, 2006 2:13 PM

I think the screeners made the right choice.
As a geologist cannot be distinguished from a non-geologist (and no reason a geologit cannot be a highjacker), and as I do see how one can use a rock as a weapon to injure some people and then threaten injury to others, and possibly use this to advance any highjacking, I totally agree.
There is no reason one needs a rock as a carry-on. We have an adjustement period ahead of us, but a bit of thought would have told the rock-carrier to check the rock in. Geez.

Leolo October 10, 2006 2:15 PM

To the person using Jet Li as an example :

Jet Li is a master of wushu, a non-combat martial art. So while Jet Li would have an advantage in speed, stamina and coordination, I don’t think he’s ever done any non-choreographed combat.

Unlike Chuck Norris.

ravanoid October 10, 2006 2:16 PM

Oh, my! When I think of the times I have taken yarn, a heavy purse (my favorite weapon in junior high), or even lace-up shoes, onto a plane, I just crack up.

I wish I was a better cartoonist… this could be entertaining.

bob October 10, 2006 2:18 PM

The solution is not to fly commercial air carrier.

A) drive, which is going to be faster than a trip of < 500 miles by air anyway, by the time you factor in the time to go through security, fly to a hub, wait, fly to your terminus and claim (you hope) your checked baggage;


B)fly an air-taxi, that is to say a light plane that leaves from a nearby airport when you want it to, carries just your party, and goes direct to the airport nearest your destination).

WellThatIsLame October 10, 2006 2:26 PM

Guess we better get rid of all the snow globes and paper weights out of the airport gift shops, too.

Tim October 10, 2006 2:27 PM

Oh, the insanity. Yes, a mugger can effectively use a brick to commit a crime, but how many people can use a brick (or a rock) to hold off a planeload of people in order to highjack it? If someone was to whip out their pet rock and yell “this is a highjack!”, many passengers and crew would jump the idiot–they would not stand around and wait their turn like the bad guys in the martial movies do.

Senator Obama makes a good point about security: “tough but dumb.”

Can we please get some intelligent people to head up the TSA?

Jeff October 10, 2006 2:34 PM


“I do see how one can use a rock as a weapon to injure some people and then threaten injury to others, and possibly use this to advance any highjacking, I totally agree.
There is no reason one needs a rock as a carry-on. ”

To the extent the question is what “can” be used as a weapon and whether we “need” the carryon, be prepared to carry on nothing. Everything can be used as a weapon and nothing is needed.

The real question should be “is security enhanced by banning this article and all articles with the same characteristics?”. While we may have an initial reaction that banning rocks is not a problem, I would bet its more because we don’t expect personally to be carrying rocks on aircraft in the near future. To be logically complete though, you would need to ban anything that is like a rock — hard, dense, and throwable. That includes laptop batteries, electric shavers, hardcover books, etc.

Weary October 10, 2006 2:38 PM

“If someone was to whip out their pet rock and yell “this is a highjack!””
I dunno, it could be dangerous. Maybe people would fall over with laughter and hurt themselves.

The point I was trying to make is that the TSA staff are stuck with a lousy job because of these stupid rules; they don’t have a choice except to quit or implement this lunacy. Personally, I try not to take out my frustrations on the front line staff when a company implements a silly policy.

You hit it with your last sentence. We need better leadership.

Jack C Lipton October 10, 2006 2:43 PM


“If you had a choice between a fight with your bare fists or with the assistance of a hefty piece of rock, which you choose? I suspect most of us know that the rock is potentially an effective weapon. Some muggers use bricks to strike devastating surprise blows against their victims, who don’t get the chance to fight back.”


This would only work against the first person (or two) being struck. After that any rock-wielding assailant would get steam-rollered by the rest of the passengers.

You will not see a scene like Bart’s speech on arriving in Rock Ridge as the new Sheriff being played out by a man holding a rock.

Mind you, I can almost imagine people bringing subcritical chunks of uranium to security and having to ditch ’em into a dumpster. While the collection won’t explode, it’d sure do a LOT of damage to anyone walking by. (Note that this is not an original idea; it was inspired, IIRC, by an OLD story named “Nightmare of Zeppelins” or some such that was dropping radium pellets on the same target in order to assemble an explosive, which was obviously written by someone who confused radiactive decay with fission.)

The real problem is that, in the hands of someone who feels a need to have a weapon, any one with an imagination will find or create one.

David Drake’s “Northworld” had, as the protagonist, a man who qualified as a weapon. All it takes is adequate imagination. (Osama may have been inspired by the ending of Tom Clancy’s “Debt of Honor”… no real imagination required. Note that some cultures do not encourage imagination or initiative very well.)

I know, I know, there will be those who decry my statement as a mere re-casting of “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”, but, if you look at it, an explosive device will (unless poorly engineered) not go off until a human being decides to do so.

Weapons don’t have initiative. People do. A weapon just provides a fulcrum, so to speak, allowing more damage to be done with less effort.

Mind you, the news media work as a wonderful fulcrum by providing leverage for terrorists to spread fear… because, nowadays, our news media are profit-making enterprises of their own and fear SELLS.

Of course, the problem we have these days, is that anyone with a brain in the US fears their own nation’s leadership more than they fear a “foreign enemy”. What was it James Burke said, in “Faith in Numbers”? Ah, yes, the Roman Empire fell because the barbarian you didn’t know seemed preferable to the tax collector you did.

Bruce Schneier October 10, 2006 2:44 PM

“Do you let Jet Li, martial arts wiz (at least in movies) and dangerous weapon or a middle-aged, balding, blond and blue-eyed Scandinavian-American geology professor with a pet rock onto an aeroplane. I vote to deport both of these unsavory characters.”

In a one-on-one battle, the smart money bets on Jet Li.

John October 10, 2006 2:50 PM

A weapon is not an object, it’s a state of mind. Virtually any object can be turned into a weapon (with varying degrees of effectiveness). Until this is recognized by the general public (as opposed to the people making the rules), and the public decides not to stand for it, we’ll continue to have the ‘banned object of the day’ club.

bluezoo7 October 10, 2006 2:52 PM

The sooner the TSA implements a “naked only” policy, the sooner only baby boomer-aged males will fly, relieving us all of listening to these repetitous stories of tough restrictions and other about racial profiling, that are frankly becoming quite boring.

Lucy & Byron October 10, 2006 2:56 PM

Not surprised. Returning from London in September, my fountain pen was confiscated as a clear and present danger. I know the pen is mightier than the sword and all that, but this is ridiculous.

Drew Thaler October 10, 2006 2:56 PM

Most carryon bags would be as effective for bludgeoning as a rock would be. So would many shoes.

Mark my words, we’ll be travelling naked soon enough.

John October 10, 2006 3:03 PM


Ok, so now we’re naked. And what do I do if I want a weapon? I unclip the buckle side of the seat belt from my seat (yes, it’s fastened on with a clip, much like what you’d find on an infants car seat, to make it easy to detach & replace in case it fails). This gives me a handy peice of metal securely attached to a 12-18 inch length of heavy fabric strapping.

Naked isn’t sufficient to ensure ‘safety’. Unconscious would be far ‘safer’.

Anonymous October 10, 2006 3:08 PM

You could smother someone with one of those airplane seat cushion personal floatation devices.

Next time I fly, I’ll take along a hard cover edition of Les Miserables.

Buzzard Lipps October 10, 2006 3:12 PM

When these stories surface, I always think just how easy it would be to snap a CD in half and PRESTO! you have a sharp point and a cutting edge. Actually, you have 2.

Geoff Lane October 10, 2006 3:16 PM

OMG, terrorists are rare.

Insane people are almost as rare.

Ordinary people are everywhere and treating them as if every last one of then might just be a well trained terrorist who can convert a drinking straw into a deadly weapon is NOT going to make your flight one jot safer.

As all this stupidity must raise the stress levels of travellers I wonder how many deaths have occured (through heart attacks and strokes) just because of the increased stress of having to deal with insane security?

David Dyer-Bennet October 10, 2006 3:19 PM

TSA is apparently implementing a policy that they be the dumbest thing in the secure zone at the airport.

Dan Halford October 10, 2006 3:51 PM

Things that can be used as weapons on airlines. Let’s watch the numpties in charge of the TSA and other such bodies around the world ban all of these for more than a week or so:
– Pens and pencils (sharp points = potential stabbing weapon)
– Spectacles and sunglasses (metal frames can be broken to form sharp points, and the glass can be broken to form a sharp cutting edge)
– Belts and shoelaces (strangulation device)
– Nylon stockings (strangulation device)
– CDs (can be broken to form cutting edge)
– Any form of electrical cable, including headphones and laptop power supplies (strangulation device)
– Women’s make-up kits containing a mirror (can be broken to form cutting egde)
– Laptop computers (heavy objects can be used as bludgeoning weapons, not to mention they’re all potential incendiary bombs)
– Cameras (glass lenses can be broken to form cutting edge)
– Right-wing evangelical Chrisitians (can bore people to death and invoke homicidal tendencies in the most passive of passengers)

Tom Grant October 10, 2006 3:52 PM

Gee. TSA is tough on rocks!

Lets see…I pull out my “dual-use” piece of collectable garnet schist and whack a flight attendant with it…intending to take over the plane. And then fifty people kick my *ss. I must be a bit denser than the average rock.

But wait! I suppose if you had fifty people all getting on board with a fistful of schist…I guess that could get a bit ugly.

Fortunately TSA is looking out for our interests. I, for one, feel much safer knowing I can leave most of my schist at home.

Fear, uncertainty, and doubt. The strongest of these is Fear.

Jack C Lipton October 10, 2006 3:52 PM


“As all this stupidity must raise the stress levels of travellers I wonder how many deaths have occured (through heart attacks and strokes) just because of the increased stress of having to deal with insane security?”

Well… it’s supposed to be a learning experience. I imagine it also helps to sell SSRI anti-depressants, too.

I work in a company where some folks have jobs that are “80% Travel”. I’ve commented to at least one that the other 20% must be consumed in waiting to get through airport security… which has gotten a lot of agreement if not sad smiles.

I have dealt with companies who had so many technological tricks embedded in their software that it made it feel like they thought I was a criminal. I prefer NOT to do business with such a company, if I can… and is merely one of the reasons I prefer to work using Linux.

The hell of it is that I’ve gotten turned off to a lot of this crap– I don’t like buying CDs, for instance…

So, to my mind, when you treat everyone like they are destructive terrorists, you may be trying to make people choose to become destructive terrorists, simple because they feel that they’re already paying the penalty.

Nick Lancaster October 10, 2006 3:54 PM

Jet Li is an accomplished martial artist, and the distinction between ‘non-combat’ is like comparing aikido to akijutsu.

Regardless, belts and boot laces can be used as effective garottes; so can a pair of nylons or a necktie. I imagine the ear piece of a pair of eyeglasses could be sharpened to serve as a shiv, readily deployable by simply using electrical tape to hold it to the frame.

A guitar pick could be sharpened. For that matter, the thin metal eraser shields used by architects could probably be given an edge, as could a regular credit card.

A roll of quarters is a dual-use item, easily. And if a rock in a sock is bad, how about a couple of D-cell batteries? (Which could be bought inside the terminal AFTER you go through security.)

We’re being hard on TSA folks only because they’ve been tasked with an almost-certainly impossible mission, and the people in charge aren’t giving them the guidance they need.

Jack C Lipton October 10, 2006 3:56 PM

@Nick Lancaster

“A guitar pick could be sharpened. For that matter, the thin metal eraser shields used by architects could probably be given an edge, as could a regular credit card.”

Thank you. Finally, your ID card (driver’s license, etc) is a weapon. Let’s watch the brains (if any) at the TSA now implode.

BigHank53 October 10, 2006 4:22 PM

The next time you get on an airliner, look up to your right as soon as you enter the plane and turn into the aisle. That’ll be the first aid kit, in its mandatory location. Notice the oxygen cylinder? The big steel tube with the nice brass valve/handle on the end? Wanna be the only passenger with a big club?

Bonus points if you can figure out how to make an improvised cutting torch for getting through the cockpit door.

Anonymous October 10, 2006 5:11 PM

I wish you people would hush up on ways to defeat the TSA.

  1. There’s no challenge in it – it’s like out-thinking an ant or arm-wresting an infant.

  2. I’m sure some highbie TSA retard reads this blog and uses it as the basis for making traveller’s lives more miserable. Don’t plant another seed of stupidity in his tiny brain!

Peter Glaskowsky October 10, 2006 5:14 PM

In the 90s I bought an 8-pound brick-shaped piece of titanium at the Boeing Surplus Store in Seattle. I had only carry-on luggage. I knew putting it through the X-ray would only cause trouble, so I took it out to hand it to the (pre-TSA) screener at the archway. The archway started beeping when I was about two feet away. The screener BACKED UP away from me and said “supervisor!” fairly loudly. The supervisor came over warily, but took the titanium from me, looked it over, asked what it was, I explained in six words, he said “okay” and waved me through. But I sure made that screener’s day…

jb October 10, 2006 6:02 PM

Jack C Lipton
“So, to my mind, when you treat everyone like they are destructive terrorists, you may be trying to make people choose to become destructive terrorists, simple because they feel that they’re already paying the penalty.”

Its not so much a matter of alredy paying the penalty but more that if you are fighting an unjust system, you might get to a point where the only recourse left “is” terrorism.

Bear October 10, 2006 6:06 PM

I never looked but I wonder how many sharp things you can buy once you have passed through the security check? As long as you are not changing flights anywhere you could buy something and bring it with you. No one would know any better.

How about duty free? Buy a bottle then smash it over someones head. Knock them out and if the bottle breaks you get a nice sharp weapon.

sigh…… They just don’t get it.

Brett October 10, 2006 6:16 PM

Akin to a rock in a sock is simply a couple handfulls of loose change. How many women do you know who can reach into their purse and pull out the change they received from their last 30 or so purchases?

Davi Ottenheimer October 10, 2006 6:33 PM

@ dk

“The screeners have no way of knowing that he was a geologist.”

Well no, actually, they do have at least one way and that is to ask him a few questions. We would be fools to think that an ID card is the only method of “knowing” someone, especially given the availability of plain old intelligent profiling (POP).

In other words, if you know something about geology you can pretty quickly determine if someone is a geologist. I think the more relevant blog archive is this one:

The problem, as I tried to point out earlier, is that profiling in this manner requires a certain level of intelligence. Even the kind we do everyday to assess our own cultural and social surroundings is based more on quick data analysis than on strict rules or regulations (which tend to be error-prone and unbearably slow to the point of self-embarrassment).

Unfortunately, intelligence is far from what the current anti-terror programs are spending their money on though…tough and dumb is a great way to describe it/them.

Davi Ottenheimer October 10, 2006 6:45 PM

Incidentally, Steve Wozniak made a point on a recent Colbert Report to show his rather knife-like metal business card. He explained that he regularly uses it when flying to cut his food, and he even asks permission from the flight attendants.

Knowing Woz it is more to draw attention to his ruse (since noone notices) than avoid it.

Here’s the show:

And here’s a close up of the card:

Doesn’t seem very food-friendly to me. I think cleaning those holes would be a pain, especially from butter or soft cheese.

And, perhaps most notably, after the show copies of the card were running over $500 on eBay…

Augusto October 10, 2006 8:06 PM

All this care and last week I boarded a flight where the knife provided during dinner was sharp and made of metal. Can anyone explain that??

Anonymous October 10, 2006 8:08 PM


“sigh…… They just don’t get it.”

The more cynical among us are convinced that in fact, the upper leadership of the TSA does in fact Get It, but at an even higher level. If their actual objective is something other than actually improving airline safety, it makes a lot of sense.

dr. dooom October 10, 2006 9:05 PM

A tightly rolled up newspaper can be used with the right technique to effect a highly focused blow, more powerful and deadly than a punch. So there you go. Rock, paper, scissors!

Fivespan October 10, 2006 11:35 PM

Just two questions:
1. Anyone recently try to get on a plane with a newspaper very tightly rolled into a pointy ended shiv? (Sounds like one of those ‘dual-use’ devices.)
2. On many planes, each seat has a PFD for passengers to wear in the unlikely event of a water landing. The devices are self-inflating. Do these devices inflate from an ‘explosive’ chemical reaction?

Roger October 11, 2006 1:34 AM

Regarding “Can we please get some intelligent people to head up the TSA?” and various related comments.

When things like this happen, it’s not because an idiot at TSA headquarters decided that rocks could be used to hijack planes, nor because TSA headquarters is being maliciously foolish. In fact TSA does NOT have a prohibition on rocks, nor indeed many of the other dumb things that are sometimes claimed be prohibited. These problems arise from poorly trained, overworked TSA screeners making a snap decision whilst staring at a huge queue of frustrated travellers. TSA does prohibit martial arts weapons (including cudgels, maces and brass knuckles) from carry-on luggage (but not checked luggage); a screener spots a large rock, and has about 3 seconds to decide if it is functionally equivalent to a cudgel, mace or brass knuckles. And they make mistakes.

The solution, obviously, is to employ more screeners (so they can pass travellers through faster whilst being simultaneously more careful and less tired), pay them a lot more (so the job attracts bright candidates) and train them much better than the current one day course. Unfortunately, this would require a substantial increase in funding, and–contrary to popular myth–the TSA has a very small budget, only adequate for the “security theatre” level of security.

To clear up some of the confusion, TSA has a website at

@Fivespan :

  1. … Do these devices inflate from an ‘explosive’ chemical reaction?

No. They have a tiny little cylinder of compressed gas, similar in size and shape to a soda water cyliner.

George Smiley October 11, 2006 1:42 AM

“OMG, terrorists are rare.”

Ah, yes. But cowards are common. Karl Rove & Co. has made a good business from this over the last six years or so.

Arturo Quirantes October 11, 2006 2:29 AM

What’s the point of trying to get anything harmful from entering the plane? No matter how many rocks, pencils or sharp papers you take with you, you won’t be able to control all 100+ people on board. If you want to hijack the plane or bring it to the ground, your hope is to go after the pilots. And that’s what reinforced doors are good for.

averros October 11, 2006 2:49 AM

I’ll second the opinion of Anonymous that the TSA higher-ups are, indeed, sane and intelligent.

They do “get it”. They understand full well that scared sheepie (which once upon a time were independent and proud people) is quite easy to hoodwink into parting with their money. So they manufacture scares and pretend to protect everyone from the supposed threats. And, unlike the sheepie, they do benefit from it – they get their salaries, bonuses and pensions.

And the seemingly random and arbitrary rules serve to disorient and scare sheepie even more and to obscure the real purpose of the the whole enterprise.

Wyle_E October 11, 2006 2:56 AM

Whlie they’re at it, they can exclude the original multi-use weapon, the human hand.

I second the idea of hacking the no-fly list to include every member of Congress, the Supreme Court, every Circuit Court of Appeals judge and the whole Cabinet. In fact, it would probably be simpler to just dump the whole Census database into the List, forcing the Gomer Gestapo to either shut down commercial aviation completely or stop this nonsense.

At very least, the ACLU could gin up a test case to ask the Supreme Court just what constitutes “due process of law” under the Fifth Amendment in this case. A great many people are being deprived of liberty because some unknown functionary put them On The List without any sort of court process.

Neighborcat October 11, 2006 5:02 AM

Dumptruck full of gravel = Truck bomb?
Great Wall of China = WMD?
Rolling Stones Album = Terrorist Manifesto?
Stoners = Enemy Combatants?
Stone Cold Steve Austin, Albert Einstein = latest additions to No-fly list?

Nick Lancaster October 11, 2006 5:09 AM


The prohibited items list is a nice checklist for travelers, but still – one of the items pegged is the dangerous ‘swiss key’ (a utility blade/screwdriver that folds onto your key ring).

That item is difficult, at best, to deploy rapidly, and the edges are at right angles to each other, making it difficult to grip as a weapon (there’s also no locking mechanism, so the blade can fold in on you). That’s my opinion, of course, and maybe someone with actual law enforcement experience might be able to state otherwise.

And while it may not be the fault of screeners or the TSA management, the hope is that, by pointing out the inconsistent and flawed standards, we get to a point where security can be improved.

Kent K October 11, 2006 6:52 AM

My most recent trip was about 48 hours after they resumed allowing limited liquids in carry-ons. However, I was informed that I had not “declared” my 2.7 oz shave cream so it was tossed. I wound up shaving with soap. On the return flight (still without shave cream), a nice lady next to me pulled out two 10 inch bamboo knitting needles….

Ed T. October 11, 2006 8:01 AM

Some years before 9/11, I was stopped at the security checkpoint at Minneapolis/St Paul for trying to take “dual use” items through. The items? A sock… and my loose change.

I used my son’s divorced socks (you know, the ones that the dryer DOESNT eat) to carry my spare change. The screener claimed I could use this as a blackjack. I asked his supervisor if this was the policy of the airport, and was told it was. I then informed them that, under their “policy” EVERYONE had to be relieved of their socks and loose change (hey, at least the old kiddie socks weren’t a biohazard.) The supervisor muttered something about “next time just buy a damn coin purse” and let me through.

Of course, in the post-9/11 era, I would have been clubbed in the mouth with the butt of an M-16 for even saying such a thing. Then probably carted off to Club Gitmo or some other renditioning plant.


stan October 11, 2006 8:10 AM

I await the day when they would prohibit humans on flights because we could scratch, punch, slap, bite, etc. the crew, pilot and each other. 😀

FP October 11, 2006 9:32 AM

@X: “I wonder when they are going to ban beer in a can.”

That has been the case for quite some time. As you are told in a public announcement before every flight, “for security reasons, it is not allowed to consume alcoholic beverages unless served by a flight attendant.”

Of course, just like the identity check to make sure that you don’t fly on someone else’s ticket, this is just a convenience for airlines. Only because you’re not allowed to BYOB (bring your own beer) can they charge you $5 a can.

I’m waiting for soft drinks and food to be next: “No, you can’t bring your own food on board for that cross-country flight. After all, it might just be food colored plastic explosive. But we’re happy to sell you a can of soda and a dwarf-size sandwich for only $15.”

Anonymous Coward October 11, 2006 9:36 AM

What’s the need of weapons? Every plane has a plentiful supply of people that can easily bore and/or annoy you to death.

GPE October 11, 2006 10:37 AM

I’ve a black belt in Aikido. Will I be required to keep my hands in my pockets for the duration of the flight? With less training than you might think, just about anything becomes “dual use” as a weapon. Just look around at the materials used to build the plane.

Ever looked closely at that pocket in front of you or examined the parts that make up a tray table? There are some interesting items on the beverage cart as well. And these are sources of weapons kindly “provided” by the aircraft manufacturer and the airline.

Tyler Moore October 11, 2006 11:55 AM

This isn’t new. I too had a rock confiscated in May at the Bari, Italy airport. The small rock was taken from Mt Etna in Sicily. My mother wanted to put it in her garden. However, I also had an even bigger rock that was carved to look like the stone caves of Matera, Italy. This rock was no problem because it was a souvenir, but the plain-old rock was deemed a threat.

CP October 11, 2006 11:57 AM

I was flying through SFO yesterday. My wife had her makeup and lotions in a freezer bag. The screener actually said that her bag was too big, made her split the contents into 2 smaller zip-loc bags, and then sent us on our way.

I felt much safer.

Matthew Skala October 11, 2006 2:13 PM

How did they know he was a real geologist? The point is, they shouldn’t have to. It doesn’t matter whether he was a real geologist. The rock wouldn’t be any more or less dangerous just because he was or wasn’t a geologist. Either rocks are something that it’s okay for people to bring onboard a plane, or they aren’t. Trying to say “Well, you can bring this only if we think you’re the sort of person who would have a good reason to bring it” just means that:
A. you’ll penalize the overwhelming majority of honest non-terrorists who want to bring basically harmless items on board for weird, but harmless, reasons; and
B. all the terrorists will take the time to make up good cover stories for their carry-on luggage, as they were already doing anyway.

bear October 11, 2006 6:19 PM

And now some citizen manages to fly their personal aircraft into the side of an appartment (planned or not, I haven’t heard).

Where there is a will, there is a way no matter how hard we try to mitigate the risks.

Nick Lancaster October 11, 2006 7:23 PM

(The plane crash in New York involved baseball pitcher Cory Lidle, who had been flying for less than a year.)

@ Ed T.

I used to have a coin purse that was a small leather bag cinched by a ring. Loaded with a few dollars of coinage, it would make a very nice blackjack.

For that matter, so would a knotted handkerchief.

More and more, the problem seems to be that we are replacing one illusion of security with another.

JB October 12, 2006 8:57 AM

@FP “I’m waiting for soft drinks and food to be next”

I’ve been bringing my own food on flights for years because I eat vegetarian. Last week my homemade burrito was flagged by the x-ray technician. Naturally the TSA zombie had to open my bag and inspect the potential weapon.

But this begs the question: if C-4 and tofu (the firm kind) have the same density, could a vegetarian terrorist succeed in smuggling a bomb with a carrot-stick detonator on a plane?

Old-fashioned girl October 12, 2006 10:35 AM

This isn’t new. I had a large rock confiscated at the Portland, ME airport–actually, they nicely gave me a box and let me check it–in the summer of 1981. I was a winsome college student at the time on my way home from the beach.

Roger October 12, 2006 7:02 PM

@Nick Lancaster:

And while it may not be the fault of screeners or the TSA management, the hope is that, by pointing out the inconsistent and flawed standards, we get to a point where security can be improved.

The problem is that many of the “inconsistent and flawed standards” being pointed out do not even exist, and others are being so misrepresented that the criticisms being made are wrong. For example, recently on this blog we have had dozens of people criticising restrictions on cameras as carry-on luggage in the US (a restriction which never existed in the US, although it did in the UK–for just 4 days), rocks (also non-existent, probably due to an isolated screener error), prescription medicines (never prohibited in either country), claims that TSA overrides Miranda rights (completely false), that TSA prohibits matches as a security measure (it’s a fire safety measure, imposed by ICAO not TSA, and you are allowed to take a small number as carry-on only), that TSA has no appeals process (completely false), and on and on.

Frankly it doesn’t look anything like constructive criticism of the TSA, it looks like the fun new sport of TSA-baiting for its own sake. An atmosphere is created in which it becomes “common knowledge” that TSA is staffed entirely by fools, and any new claim is automatically accepted for its value as an amusing anecdote without even the slightest effort to research its accuracy. This is not going to improve security, but cause the victims of the mockery to ignore all criticism, even when it is valid.


But this begs the question: if C-4 and tofu (the firm kind) have the same density, could a vegetarian terrorist succeed in smuggling a bomb with a carrot-stick detonator on a plane?

C4 and tofu do not have the same density. Density affects the cutting power of an explosive, so most high powered explosives are much denser than most foods. C4 has a specific gravity of 1.64. Few foods exceed 1.1, and most–including all tofu I’ve ever seen–are less than 1. (The main exceptions are very concentrated syrups, which get up around 1.3, and pure salt, 2.16).

Tim K October 13, 2006 6:03 AM

First, paper has already been confiscated. See for details

Second – I can go one better. I got stopped three times in Frankfurt airport for carrying a block of nothing. My block of nothing was in fact having no cdrom drive in my laptop to save weight and a spacer installed instead. The large empty space made them panic and I had to explain this at three xrays including one where the panic button was pressed and I was explaining to armed guards.

Interestingly, we had a long technical discussion about their xray machines (I work in imaging) and they colorise objects of different density by random colour map so that the screeners will notice a plastic knife rather than say – it’s ok its not as dense as I’d expect metal to be. They can change the colour map on demand to improve contrast. They also leave the object in the scanner until you identify it on screen as apparently the scanners are bomb proof when an object is inside, presumably by a shutter of some sort.

So to them, my nothing looked like a large block of explosive stuck inside my laptop with some wites going into it at regular intervals containing points of a different density – not detonators, but my keyboard membrane. Having seen the picture I’d agree with them and have travelled without nothing ever since.

Finally, something I’d never do again. I’d been to a lan party in a nuclear bunker and left my rucksack at left luggage at Kings Cross in London. My bag was full of wires and aroused he suspicions of the security staff when they xrayed it. I explained to them that if I wanted to build a bomb, I’d use far less wire and they let it through without the customary search.

Tom in Sunnyvale October 17, 2006 1:01 AM

But the real crime is that the TSC can confiscate almost anything with no reasonable recourse for payment. No reciept, no records…

There are no FedX mailers or boxes available for purchase to send something home, or check it as baggage, like the rock, or Dad’s antique pipe tool with great emotional value.

No process that does not risk missing your flight (yet more $).

Mike Williamson October 20, 2006 9:01 PM

While many of the complaints are legitimate, the conspiracy theories just prove that many of the antagonists are no brighter than they allege their opponents to be.

B November 1, 2006 2:39 PM

If one is looking for the absurdity with TSA policies, one need look no further than the list of permitted and banned items. Do they really believe that the American public is that stupid as to not know that it is inappropriate to bring brass knuckles, hand grenades, swords and spear guns onboard a plane? As for the spear gun, what if the plane goes down over the ocean? How do they expect me to fight off the hungry sharks trying to eat me? The list is good for one thing, comedy relief, and it really shows how they really do not know what the hell they are doing.

shiku July 29, 2007 7:13 AM

at what distance from the terminal building do we require pales of loose stnes stones. I am asking this because I have seen few airports with loose stones in a distance of less than one meter from the terminal building at land side and at obout 20meters from the terminal we realy need stones(loose) at either side? what impact do they have or what threat do thay pose to the building and the people about the terminal building?

Zorba November 25, 2007 1:03 AM

Knitting needles. How do those get on board? Metal, plastic, wood, it doesn’t seem to matter. Is it that knitters seem less threatening than geologists? I’m particularly amazed at the knitting needles that are connected at both ends by a cord … looks like a dual-use item to me: garrot and two-sided stabbing implement. Bureaucratic nonsense.

Thousands Standing Around (TSA). I gotta tell you, I feel thousands of times safer having a bunch of wannabe law enforcement personnel latched onto the Federal Teat checking my penny loafers.

I hope the NSA isn’t monitoring this … gulp.

the moonhanger July 23, 2008 9:58 PM

Why do you all complain so much?? All of these precautions are to PROTECT YOUR SORRY ASSES!! By making random checks and what you think are useless precautions they are making people think twice about what they actaully do take on board. My wife is flight attendant, everytime I take a flight with Lufthansa and I get stopped and searched I thank the guard or inspector who stops me for protecting me. So stop whining and complaining all these precautions are for YOUR SAFETY! And try saying thank you to the flight attendants as you get off the plane.. they are not flying waitresses.. they are highly trained professionals, trained in safety proceedure to keep you safe, to make your flight comfortable and pleasant, spending many hours in training courses

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