Ryan Scott probably should consider himself lucky that he wasn't
arrested for trying to carry firearms onto an airplane. True, there were a
few extenuating circumstances: Ryan is only 9, and the guns were toys that
no one would mistake for actual weapons.
But rules are rules, and the Transportation Security
Administration (TSA) lists "toy weapons" among its "Items Prohibited in
Aircraft Cabins." So when Ryan tried to take a rubber, four-inch G.I. Joe
rifle and a few miniature toy pistols aboard a flight at the Central
Wisconsin Airport earlier this month, he was nabbed.
"It says a toy gun, and that's a toy gun," a spokeswoman for the
company the TSA pays to screen passengers at the airport told the Wausau
Daily Herald. After Ryan's family complained, the airport's director of
operations saved the toys from destruction. "I personally think it's
foolish," he said, "but that's how (the rule is) being interpreted."
A TSA spokesman said he had not heard about the incident, but
"it may be that we had an overzealous screener that wanted to follow the
letter of the rule." In other words, the problem is stupid screeners, not a
If so, the stupidity seems to be rampant, which is something the
TSA might want to consider when it writes its rules. Around the same time
that Ryan Scott's toys were taken away, screeners at the Los Angeles
International Airport told a British tourist, Judy Powell, she could not
take an armed G.I. Joe doll on her plane.
The doll, which Powell had bought in Las Vegas, was carrying the
same sort of little rifle that got Ryan into trouble. Eventually, she was
allowed to pack the doll in a checked suitcase -- without the rifle. That
edict presumably was improvised, since TSA regulations allow passengers to
real guns in checked luggage, "so long as
they are unloaded and declared to the airline at the ticket counter."
Powell told the BBC that "security examined the toy as if it was
going to shoot them and looked at the rifle. I was really angry to start
with because of the absurdity of the situation. But then I saw the funny
side of it and thought this was simple lunacy."
Not everyone agrees. Unlike the Central Wisconsin Airport, where
a sensible official intervened to rescue Ryan's toys, LAX seems to be run by
the sort of "overzealous" people who take TSA regulations at face value. "We
have instructions to confiscate anything that looks like a weapon or a
replica," an LAX spokesman said. "If G.I. Joe was carrying a replica, then
it had to be taken from him." It's not clear whether Joe put up a fight.
Surely these are isolated incidents, just like last month's
arrest of a competitive boomerang thrower who tried to board a plane in
Connecticut with her sports equipment. Boomerangs are not explicitly banned
from aircraft cabins, but the TSA emphasizes that its list "is not
all-inclusive": "Other items that may be deemed to present a potential
threat may also be prohibited."
No doubt it was also an aberration when a woman at JFK was
forced to drink from three bottles of her own breast milk to show that the
contents did not "represent a potential threat." But once you see enough
isolated incidents (and we have to assume that many cases do not get
reported in the press), you start to see a pattern.
You might think that security screeners who are vigilant enough
to intercept tiny toy guns would be highly effective at spotting real
weapons. Yet as of June, screeners were still missing one in four dummy
guns, bombs and knives in government tests. Historically, these tests have
practically been designed to be passed.
By casting its net too widely, the TSA is making it harder for
screeners, overzealous or not, to zero in on genuine threats. Now that the
old model for responding to hijackers, based on the assumption that
cooperation was the safest course, has been abandoned, terrorists will never
again be able to take over airplanes armed with box cutters, let alone with
scissors, pliers, wrenches, corkscrews, golf clubs, hockey sticks or pool
cues, to pick some of the sillier items on the TSA's list.
We may, along with the woman whose G.I. Joe was disarmed, "see
the funny side of it." But airline security shouldn't be a joke.