Many people leave airport security feeling dehumanised, frightened, even violated. How do the officers feel? Edward Schwarzschild decided to find out
It was my first shift of on-the-job training as a transportation security officer at Albany International Airport’s only checkpoint, and I was told to shadow Steven, a fast-talking, big-bellied former car salesman. We started our rotation at “divestiture,” the Transportation Security Administration’s term for the place where you surrender your belongings. I rehearsed the script about emptying all pockets, putting laptops in their own trays, and removing shoes, jackets and belts. After 15 minutes of that, it was on to the next task. We moved from bag search to the walk-through metal detector, to the document checker, to the scanner, then back around to divestiture. Steven pattered advice my way as we circled the checkpoint. “Carry extra gloves in your back pocket,” he said. “Make sure they’re not too tight. And remember, you’re in charge. This is your house.”
It didn’t feel like my house, which I’d left at 4am, tiptoeing out so as not to wake my wife and three-year-old son. And despite my brand new, titanium-blue uniform, complete with patches, epaulettes and a shiny nametag, I didn’t feel in charge at all. While I listened to Steven, I scanned the checkpoint for my fellow TSOs-in-training. Eight of us had just spent two weeks in a heavily air-conditioned, windowless classroom together. In our civilian clothes, we had listened to lectures, learned how to read x-ray images, practised pat-downs, and passed various tests. I caught sight of one of my classmates: Nina, a bubbly former schoolteacher. She was bouncing on the balls of her feet as she worked the walk-through metal detector. She didn’t look in charge either, but the crisp new uniform lent her an undeniable aura of authority. She gave me the thumbs-up and I returned the favour, remembering my pre-dawn drive to the airport. A cover of Feeling Good had been playing on the radio as I pulled into the employee car park: It’s a new dawn / It’s a new day / It’s a new life … I had walked toward the terminal with the music still buzzing in my ears. Red lights glowed out on the tarmac. Under the layers of asphalt and concrete, there was marshland. Along the chain-link fences, cattails still grew tall, rustling in the wind. They were stiff from the cold, and I listened to them brush like bamboo against the fence, an odd but soothing windchime.