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Life & Liberty: On the Cutting Edge


When terrorists hijacked TWA flight 847 to Beirut, they did not kill serviceman Robert Stetham with pinking shears. After a Bombay-bound plane exploded over the North Atlantic in June 1985, investigators found a bomb in the cargo hold, not somebody's heirloom silver knives. And the gunmen who attacked the El Al ticket counter in Athens were not wielding staplers.

You wouldn't guess any of this from watching the baggage police inspect the belongings of would-be airline passengers. Sure, they've been known to confiscate blank-guns from NFL referees. But more often, they're waging a holy war against office supplies, sewing scissors, and similarly lethal paraphernalia.

Like most frequent flyers, I used to take security inspections more or less for granted. Most of the time, my trips through the metal detector were hassle-free. Until I started packing a pair of scissors. They weren't anything special, just a normal pair of sewing shears with blades maybe four inches long, accompanied by an obviously massive embroidery project. But they drove the security guards crazy.

In San Francisco, the inspector pulled the offending shears out of the bag, eyed them suspiciously, and gave them back. In Kansas City, where I was just changing planes, the guard went running to her supervisor, who measured the scissors and found them a hair under banning length. Along with my shears, I got a lecture telling me to buy a smaller pair. A few airports later, I gave up. I took to snipping threads with the tiny scissors on my pocket knife.

But even after all that, I never thought anybody would object to pinking shears. If you're lucky, a new pair of high-quality pinking shears will cut little zig-zags where you would ordinarily cut a straight line. More often, they won't cut any material more substantial than air. And their blunt tips might go through Jello if you pushed really hard.

But to the tough cookies in San Juan airport, my pinking shears were a lethal weapon. American Airlines confiscated them. Took them away. And made me sign an agreement to pay any expenses they had to incur to get them back to me.

What did they think I was going to do? Threaten to cut a flight attendant's uniform to zig-zagged shreds if they didn't give me a million bucks and create a Palestinian homeland? Pinking shears cost $16. When they didn't show up on the baggage carousel, I decided to let American keep them.

It seems everyone I know has had some kind of run-in with the baggage police. When a friend of mine moved from Chicago to Atlanta, the airline forewarned her that her great-grandmother's silver couldn't come aboard. Those dinner knives were just too dangerous. (But airlines still supply real metal knives along with what they claim is food.) Dressed in her most respectably preppy clothes, my friend showed up with silver in tow anyway and talked her way past the guard.

My husband recently tried to get on a plane with a stapler. Granted, it was one of those sleek, modern jobs, the kind you sometimes see in museum shops. Very suspicious. He might have stapled the pilot to a seat and flown the plane to Havana. Fortunately, however, the staple gun wasn't loaded. Informed of this fact, the guard let it pass with a dirty look.

With people checking bombs in suitcases and machine-gunning travelers in airports, why are security guards worrying about antique dinner knives and staplers and pinking shears? Apparently, because the government tells them to.

After my various encounters with scissors-swiping guards, I'm not so nonchalant about going through airport checkpoints. I've also made a few calls and determined that while the guards work for the airlines, they are really extensions of the federal government. The Federal Aviation Administration, it seems, makes the rules about how to screen passengers and what not to let through. Then it forces the airlines to do the dirty work.

An FAA spokesman in Washington told me that his agency lumps scissors in the same category with knives. "They are a threat, particularly if they're sharp and pointed," he said. If carrying a four-inch knife blade is banned in Boston, for example, the FAA "recommends" that four-inch scissor blades be banned at the city's airport. Don't you feel safer?

Assistant Editor Virginia I. Postrel is frequently mistaken for international terrorist Carlotta the Lady Jackal.