TSA, still taking our moisturizer, but not our pocketknives

The new rules are supposed to make flying easier. But I'm not so sure it makes us safer

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published March 7, 2013 4:06PM (EST)

   (AP/Haraz N. Ghanbari)
(AP/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

It's an exciting week for people who like to fly with their small knives, novelty bats, billiard cues, ski poles, lacrosse sticks and golf clubs. On Wednesday, the Transportation Security Administration announced that for the first time since 2001, they're all welcome aboard your next flight starting April 25. Your Swiss Army knife need never fly cargo again!

The TSA says the move will allow the organization "to better devote its efforts to finding higher threat items such as explosives," which means your 3.5-oz. shampoo is still a threat to freedom. And reassuringly, box cutters, big old daggers and MLB-size bats are still unwelcome in the cabins. Yet some surviving family members of the victims of the 9/11 attacks that forever changed the face of travel disagree with the new standards. Debra Burlingame, whose brother was the pilot of the plane that crashed into the Pentagon, says that "small pocketknives can be just as lethal as the box cutters that are still banned." And the mother of a firefighter killed in the World Trade Center told USA Today this week she was "flabbergasted" by the change.

The Wall Street Journal, however, has applauded the move. As Scott McCartney writes, "Since hardened, locked cockpit doors were installed and pilots were instructed to stay behind locked doors when trouble surfaces, it seems impossible someone could hijack a plane with a small Swiss Army knife or a hockey stick. If there's an assault in the cabin, the plane lands and police and the FBI deal with an attacker." In criticizing any "knee-jerk derision of TSA," he adds, "The agency needs to be focusing on bombs and guns, not pocketknives. We don't ban pocketknives or pool cues from other public settings." And when other public settings aren't sealed spaces flying miles above the earth, I'm not too concerned about them either. In the words of Stacy K. Martin, president of Southwest Airlines' flight attendants union, "While we agree that a passenger wielding a small knife or swinging a golf club or hockey stick poses less of a threat to the pilot locked in the cockpit, these are real threats to passengers and flight attendants in the passenger cabin."

I'm not even a frequent traveler, but like anyone else who's gone anywhere in the last near dozen years, I certainly know the grim ordeal that is airline travel. I have been pulled aside and had my belongings roughly rummaged through – a situation that only ever seems to happen on the return trip, when you're carrying a bag full of sweat-stained, dirty laundry. I once watched a TSA agent confiscate my toothpaste and then fling it forcefully into a faraway garbage can. It was a dramatic scolding, even if it did betray a troubling lack of understanding of why she'd taken it from me in the first place. I've zipped and unzipped my boots countless times, and repeatedly had to explain my keychain – an antique silver utensil handle that, while long and metal, is exactly as threatening as the spoon it once was. I've been questioned about my tweezers. (Eyebrow grooming never takes a holiday, OK, TSA?) And though I've rolled my eyes exasperatedly, I've endured it as a small price to pay for an overall safer experience. And that's why, though I don't like explosions and I'm very happy that it's harder to hijack a plane's cockpit now, those of us back in coach would still prefer not to add "fear of getting stabbed" to our current list of things that suck about flying.

Things change. The TSA says it needs to focus on "threats that can cause catastrophic damage to an aircraft," and it has been a long time since Carrie Fisher observed that "someone can change the course of history with a box cutter." Who, then, is watching out for potential catastrophic damage to the passengers? Maybe today, you can't change history with a little knife. But I'd still wager you can do a lot more damage with it than with a tube of moisturizer.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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