What do cupcakes and lightsabers have in common?

Once again, embarrassing incidents on the concourse outshine useful things TSA is doing behind the scenes

By Patrick Smith

Published January 4, 2012 1:00AM (EST)

       (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-722383p1.html'>B Calkins</a> and <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-342916p1.html'>antipathique</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>)
(B Calkins and antipathique via Shutterstock)

Did you hear about TSA and the cupcake?

That's right, two week ago guards in Las Vegas took a frosted cupcake away from a woman named Rebecca Hains as she prepared to board a flight to Boston. The frosting, you see, was "gel-like" and thus a potential security threat.

I'm really not sure how to approach this one, other than to weep uncontrollably.

According to a Transportation Security Administration spokesperson the confiscation was in error -- the work of an overzealous (or maybe just hungry) screener. "In general, cakes and pies are allowed in carry-on luggage," said the spokesperson. Still, I don't know if that makes it OK. That we can use the words "cupcake" and "security" in the same sentence is a bright red flag that something is very, very wrong in America. TSA says the incident is "under review." I'd love to be a fly on the wall for that meeting.

This is yet more fodder, of course, for my American Hysteria Hall of Shame.  The hall isn't limited to airport security foibles, but clearly TSA is gunning for the bronze, the silver and the gold. Operation Cupcake joins a pretty fat list:

TSA confiscates a butter knife from an airline pilot. TSA confiscates a teenage girl's purse with an embroidered handgun design. TSA confiscates a 4-inch plastic rifle from a GI Joe action doll on the grounds that it's a "replica weapon." TSA confiscates a liquid-filled baby rattle from airline pilot's infant daughter. TSA confiscates a plastic "Star Wars" lightsaber from a toddler.

All of these things really happened. There's no real need to arrange them in order of ridiculousness, but it's that last one, with the lightsaber, that really makes you wonder if we haven't lost our minds. (I mentioned this incident in a column last month, but it deserves another reckoning.) In earthly terms a lightsaber is a toy flashlight covered by a rounded plastic cone. As a "weapon," though, it is something that exists only in fantasy. The product neither looks like a real weapon nor does it contains part that, by themselves, are TSA contraband. It is an imaginary weapon hazardous only to a race of imaginary space-people invented by George Lucas.

Thus, confiscating a lightsaber is a little like confiscating a genie bottle or a magic wand.

Actually, it's a lot like confiscating a genie bottle or a magic wand.

And so here we are, having reached a point where truth has become fully and truly stranger than fiction. I challenge anyone to invent a scenario more farcical than those listed above. Come on, give us your best lie. "You won't believe this, but they actually ..." Actually what? What could possibly be more demented than the truth?

And our tax dollars are paying for this, in case you've forgotten. To be fair, I don't disagree that TSA does some useful and effective things. The vast majority of these useful and effective things, however, take place out of view. What we experience on the concourse remains embarrassing and ultimately counterproductive, from cupcake confiscations to the multibillion-dollar scam of those walk-through body scanners.

It could be and should be better. For everyone ...

As discussed in my last column,  a program is currently under testing that, if all goes well, will allow pilots to bypass regular TSA screening -- a privilege already enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of airport ground workers. Although most of you sympathized with the silliness of pilots being asked to hand over their silverware, remove their belts, etc., not everybody agrees that the best solution is to exempt them entirely. "You sound like an elitist asshole," submitted one reader. "Making a class of people exempt from idiotic rules only sets them apart and builds resentment," added another. "As any security expert will tell you, if you're going to screen at all, you need to screen everybody. The system is only as strong as its weakest link."

But except for the elitist asshole part, I pretty much agree. Honestly -- and I've said this before -- if security were reasonable and efficient, I would have no problem going through it as a crew member. The only reason I want out is because the existing rules are so foolish, and nobody -- neither the airlines, the politicians nor the traveling public -- seems interested in fixing them.

In a way, TSA is going about this backward. It's working to come up with a system to safely exempt pilots, when what it ought to be doing is rationalizing the system for everybody.

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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