California Forum

Hands off my books, TSA. And leave my cookies alone.

Passengers at Sacramento International Airport load their items into bins before they are sent through the X-ray machine. TSA agents have begun inspecting food and reading materials.
Passengers at Sacramento International Airport load their items into bins before they are sent through the X-ray machine. TSA agents have begun inspecting food and reading materials. rpench@sacbee.com

The tradeoff between privacy and security seemed to make sense after 9/11. I was there when it happened and saw it all; flying is a privilege, not a right.

But while I expect going through airline security to be time-consuming and mildly annoying, my attitude changed recently as I prepared to board a flight out of Sacramento International Airport in the days after Memorial Day weekend.

As I stood in line, Transportation Security Administration officials announced at SMF that everyone was to take books, magazines and food out of their bags and put them into a separate bin for inspection. That was it. A line was crossed for me.

The newness of the request was bad enough. I hadn’t heard about this change. When someone in the line asked why, one TSA agent shrugged, “I don’t know, it’s new,” while the other shuttled harried passengers down the line with carnival barker precision.

As I stood in line, TSA officials announced that everyone was to take books, magazines and food out of their bags and put them into a separate bin for inspection. That was it. A line was crossed for me.

I had a cookie and some magazines with me. Reflexively, I put my cookie into the bin, but kept my magazines in my bag. Questions in my head: Why was the pile of what I read important? How was it any different from the gifts I also had with me, an odd assortment of household items for my aging mother in New York? And why was I bothered?

A few days later, I’m still bothered, and I realize that it’s because this feels personal – and different. The scrutiny of my books, magazines and food feels even more invasive than the time TSA made me take my son’s sagging diaper off to prove no contraband was in it. And even more personal than when able-bodied adults are made to stand in the machine as if under arrest in the machine, and then swabbed, and, occasionally, groped.

My reading material and food are intensely personal. If there is a reason for strangers to paw through them, I want to know why.

In fact, I may be most disturbed by the nonchalance with which many people accept and normalize the increasing encroachment and surveillance of our private intimate sphere. I consider reading a form of intimacy with the written word. And I enjoy eating. What I read and eat is no one’s business but my own.

I’m 43, that age that remembers life (not long ago) before the internet. I printed out emails the first year I received them, because they were written like letters. I did research and writing before computers, in libraries and on word processors.

I’m not romanticizing life before the internet. But older forms of privacy, intimacy and knowledge cannot be rushed off the stage without careful debate and discussion. The TSA agent’s shrug was, for me, uncomfortably close to “I was just following orders.”

I’m also upset at my own reaction. Rather than ask too many questions, I simply chose subtle non-compliance.

To me that shows two things: First, that the search policy is stupid and ineffective. Second, that some people will self-censor to avoid being targets. It’s why I didn’t want to write this op-ed initially.

After I was quoted in The Sacramento Bee last week in an article about the new TSA procedure, I got an unpleasant email from a stranger in Texas. Before the internet, if that person wanted to say something, he’d say it in public through a letter to the editor.

Now, however, a Google search enables nasty thoughts and words to be sent directly to me, and expressed without filter. It’s why we have constant harassment, hostility and, increasingly, death threats directed at journalists, academics and others who dare to question.

It’s why my friend, a U.S. citizen born of Bengali parents was detained in New York City in 2007 after that year’s London suicide bombings and held for 8 hours before being released with no apology or explanation, with his New York Review of Books and other reading materials, including diplomatic and legal histories, cited as so-called evidence. Evidence of what? That was never made clear. Perhaps that reading is dangerous.

Knowledge and liberty demand that we not self-censor, that we continue to ask what our government is doing and why.

We need to resist the creep of authoritarianism. During the Cold War, spying on neighbors was common in the Soviet Bloc. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, people reported others for listening to Western Classical Music.

I’ve seen a bumper with an American flag that says, “Freedom isn’t free.” What does it mean, in the U.S. now?

To me, it means: Hands off my books and magazines. And leave my cookies alone, too.

UC Davis professor Julie Sze is a New Yorker now living in Sacramento. She can be contacted at jszeucd@gmail.com.

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