This essay of mine first appeared on Donald Miller’s Storyline blog.


If you’re traveling this summer, there is a chance you’ll be going through an airport or two. Would you mind if I offered some insight?

Photo Credit: lunchtimemama, Creative Commons

It comes from several confrontations with TSA agents and law enforcement personnel whom I thought were on just a bit of a power trip.

But that’s my issue. It might not be yours.

Context is everything.

Last year a TSA agent pulled a jar of hair gel out of my backpack as if it were an Improvised Explosive Device, and held it high above his head to revel in his prize. The jar was larger than the allowed 3.5 ounces.

I reached for it and said, “Okay, I’ll just take some out of it and put it in a little bag and you can keep the rest.”

His voice boomed over the din of the inspection area. “This is now the property of the United States Government.” Maybe it was my imagination, but it looked like he might have moved his other hand closer to his Taser.

I stepped away, visibly annoyed.

It didn’t help that the agent looked like the prison guard character George “Pornstache” Mendez in the show Orange is the New Black.

In case you haven’t seen the show, this is not a good association.

Then, just a few weeks later, my wife and I took our adult daughter to the airport for a long trip she was taking.

Her bags were checked, she had her boarding pass, and the three of us stood near the security line so we could tell her goodbye. Then a voice carrying great authority said behind us, “I’m sorry, but you can’t stand here – you’ll have to move along.”

All I saw was the dark-sleeved arm of the airport police officer as he gestured for us to break up our illegal assembly.

For me, time stands still in moments like this.

If I choose option A, I look directly at the officer’s name badge, call him by that name and ask for his supervisor because he obviously has taken his authority too seriously. I know from experience that this will embarrass my daughter and wife.

Option B is to exercise civil disobedience and simply refuse the order. Maybe even sit down in an “Occupy Airport” action.

Option C means we choose compliance and do what the fascist says.

I have done all of these things, and the choices spun in my brain like the top in the movie Inception waiting for me to decide.

Still debating my response, I turned to fully face the officer, and he smiled.

Then I smiled. He was a former student of mine who had become a cop. He was a friend of the family, saw us gathering for a group hug, and decided to join in.

So I guess there is an Option D now—first check to see if this person is punking you.

But nothing beats what the writer Michael Eric Dyson told me when he came to our Writer’s Symposium.

Dyson writes a lot about race, and is an electrifying speaker and writer who is constant demand around the world. Dyson was trying to hurry through an airport, and he was chosen for a secondary inspection by a young TSA agent. Dyson was incredulous.

“I never get flagged at airports,” he said.

“I travel enough—I know about belts and shoes and cell phones.”

But the young TSA agent, who was also black, asked Dyson to stick out his arms for a pat-down. When the agent’s face got close to Dyson’s, the agent whispered:

“I loved your book on Tupac. I read it on my breaks from work. Would you mind signing my copy?”

The agent pulled out his worn copy of Holler If You Hear Me, and Dyson happily signed it for his new best friend.

As you travel this summer, you’ll be annoyed by lots of strangers. You’ll have options in how to respond.

Which option will you choose?