by Dale McFeatters
Scripps Howard News Service
January 27, 2005
TSA's chief flack, Yolanda Clark, flatly told my local paper, "Travelers are not required to remove their shoes at security checkpoints." Seems clear enough to me.
And the TSA's Web site says, "You are NOT REQUIRED to remove your shoes before you enter the walk-through metal detector." That seems even clearer because the added emphasis is the agency's.
Gullible lad that I am, I believed them.
On a recent flight out of Washington, I reached the head of the security screening line with my shoes still on.
The screener said, "You have to remove your shoes."
I said, "TSA says we don't have to anymore."
She said, "Oh yes you do because your shoes fit a profile."
Fit a profile? They're shoes, for heaven's sake, a very common model of a very common brand of running shoe. But I was in a good mood, we were going away for the weekend, so I took off the shoes.
I figured TSA's headquarters was doing a poor job of communicating with its screeners _ or maybe its top execs don't fly, or get waved through security when they do _ and thus don't know what's happening on the front lines.
On the return trip I wasn't exactly in a bad mood, but the Steelers had been losing to the Patriots all the way to the airport and I was glumly certain they would continue losing when I got to the airport sports bar.
"I suggest removing your shoes, sir," said the screener.
"I don't want to take off my shoes," I said. "TSA says I don't have to."
"I strongly suggest removing your shoes, sir" The "sir" had a little bit of an edge to it. "Is there some kind of medical condition that you can't?"
I probably could have bored her into submission by going on about my arthritic knees and recent back surgery, but the fact was, I just really didn't feel like taking off my shoes and told her so.
I went through the metal detector. Not a beep. But I was told to step aside for "special screening." That's when I realized that TSA's seemingly straightforward policy on shoes was a crafty mix of bureaucratese and legalisms.
You don't have to remove your shoes in the sense that you don't have to obey the traffic laws or pay your taxes, but if you don't, the government is going to make it very unpleasant for you.
I was turned over to a screener who looked like he didn't want to do this anymore than I did, but orders are orders. "Stand up, spread your legs and extend your arms." I was then chided, in tones reserved for the unusually dense, for not having my feet precisely on the little yellow footprints on the floor.
That oversight remedied, the screener wanded me all over with his hand-held metal detector, sides, front, back, inseams, shoes. Not a beep. Then he repeated the process with his hand-held explosives detector. Not a beep - or whatever an explosives detector does when it comes up empty.
Then I got frisked, all over, including a discreet nudge on either side of the crotch. Then he went through my wallet. No wonder, as The Wall Street Journal reports, complaints about TSA's "secondary screening" have been doubling every month since August.
The least TSA could do, it seems to me, is not condescend to us by lying about its shoe policy. Instead, a simple restatement of agency policy is in order: "Your comfort, convenience and privacy don't mean jack to us. Now shut up and take off your shoes."
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