TSA and the Sippy Cup Incident
This story is pretty disgusting:
“I demanded to speak to a TSA [Transportation Security Administration] supervisor who asked me if the water in the sippy cup was ‘nursery water or other bottled water.’ I explained that the sippy cup water was filtered tap water. The sippy cup was seized as my son was pointing and crying for his cup. I asked if I could drink the water to get the cup back, and was advised that I would have to leave security and come back through with an empty cup in order to retain the cup. As I was escorted out of security by TSA and a police officer, I unscrewed the cup to drink the water, which accidentally spilled because I was so upset with the situation.
“At this point, I was detained against my will by the police officer and threatened to be arrested for endangering other passengers with the spilled 3 to 4 ounces of water. I was ordered to clean the water, so I got on my hands and knees while my son sat in his stroller with no shoes on since they were also screened and I had no time to put them back on his feet. I asked to call back my fiancé, who I could still see from afar, waiting for us to clear security, to watch my son while I was being detained, and the officer threatened to arrest me if I moved. So I yelled past security to get the attention of my fiancé.
“I was ordered to apologize for the spilled water, and again threatened arrest. I was threatened several times with arrest while detained, and while three other police officers were called to the scene of the mother with the 19 month old. A total of four police officers and three TSA officers reported to the scene where I was being held against my will. I was also told that I should not disrespect the officer and could be arrested for this too. I apologized to the officer and she continued to detain me despite me telling her that I would miss my flight. The officer advised me that I should have thought about this before I ‘intentionally spilled the water!'”
This story portrays the TSA as jack-booted thugs. The story hit the Internet last Thursday, and quickly made the rounds. I saw it on BoingBoing. But, as it turns out, it’s not entirely true.
The TSA has a webpage up, with both the incident report and video.
TSO [REDACTED] took the female to the exit lane with the stroller and her bag. When she got past the exit lane podium she opened the child’s drink container and held her arm out and poured the contents (approx. 6 to 8 ounces) on the floor. MWAA Officer [REDACTED] was manning the exit lane at the time and observed the entire scene and approached the female passenger after observing this and stopped her when she tried to re-enter the sterile area after trying to come back through after spilling the fluids on the floor. The female passenger flashed her badge and credentials and told the MWAA officer “Do you know who I am?” An argument then ensued between the officer and the passenger of whether the spilling of the fluid was intentional or accidental. Officer [REDACTED] asked the passenger to clean up the spill and she did.
Watch the second video. TSO [REDACTED] is partially blocking the scene, but at 2:01:00 PM it’s pretty clear that Monica Emmerson—that’s the female passenger—spills the liquid on the floor on purpose, as a deliberate act of defiance. What happens next is more complicated; you can watch it for yourself, or you can read BoingBoing’s somewhat sarcastic summary.
In this instance, the TSA is clearly in the right.
But there’s a larger lesson here. Remember the Princeton professor who was put on the watch list for criticizing Bush? That was also untrue. Why is it that we all—myself included—believe these stories? Why are we so quick to assume that the TSA is a bunch of jack-booted thugs, officious and arbitrary and drunk with power?
It’s because everything seems so arbitrary, because there’s no accountability or transparency in the DHS. Rules and regulations change all the time, without any explanation or justification. Of course this kind of thing induces paranoia. It’s the sort of thing you read about in history books about East Germany and other police states. It’s not what we expect out of 21st century America.
The problem is larger than the TSA, but the TSA is the part of “homeland security” that the public comes into contact with most often—at least the part of the public that writes about these things most. They’re the public face of the problem, so of course they’re going to get the lion’s share of the finger pointing.
It was smart public relations on the TSA’s part to get the video of the incident on the Internet quickly, but it would be even smarter for the government to restore basic constitutional liberties to our nation’s counterterrorism policy. Accountability and transparency are basic building blocks of any democracy; and the more we lose sight of them, the more we lose our way as a nation.