Ryan Scott probably should consider himself lucky that he wasn't arrested for trying to carry firearms onto an airplane. True, there were a few extenuating circumstances: Ryan is only 9, and the guns were toys that no one would mistake for actual weapons.
But rules are rules, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) lists "toy weapons" among its "Items Prohibited in Aircraft Cabins." So when Ryan tried to take a rubber, four-inch G.I. Joe rifle and a few miniature toy pistols aboard a flight at the Central Wisconsin Airport earlier this month, he was nabbed.
"It says a toy gun, and that's a toy gun," a spokeswoman for the company the TSA pays to screen passengers at the airport told the Wasau Daily Herald. After Ryan's family complained, the airport's director of operations saved the toys from destruction. "I personally think it's foolish," he said, "but that's how [the rule is] being interpreted."
A TSA spokesman said he had not heard about the incident, but "it may be that we had an overzealous screener that wanted to follow the letter of the rule." In other words, the problem is stupid screeners, not a stupid rule.
If so, the stupidity seems to be rampant, which is something the TSA might want to consider when it writes its rules. Around the same time that Ryan Scott's toys were taken away, screeners at the Los Angeles International Airport told a British tourist, Judy Powell, she could not take an armed G.I. Joe doll on her plane.
The doll, which Powell had bought in Las Vegas, was carrying the same sort of little rifle that got Ryan into trouble. Eventually, she was allowed to pack the doll in a checked suitcase–without the rifle. That edict presumably was improvised, since TSA regulations allow passengers to transport real guns in checked luggage, "so long as they are unloaded and declared to the airline at the ticket counter."
Powell told the BBC that "security examined the toy as if it was going to shoot them and looked at the rifle. I was really angry to start with because of the absurdity of the situation. But then I saw the funny side of it and thought this was simple lunacy."
Not everyone agrees. Unlike the Central Wisconsin Airport, where a sensible official intervened to rescue Ryan's toys, LAX seems to be run by the sort of "overzealous" people who take TSA regulations at face value. "We have instructions to confiscate anything that looks like a weapon or a replica," an LAX spokesman said. "If G.I. Joe was carrying a replica, then it had to be taken from him." It's not clear whether Joe put up a fight.
Surely these are isolated incidents, just like last month's arrest of a competitive boomerang thrower who tried to board a plane in Connecticut with her sports equipment. Boomerangs are not explicitly banned from aircraft cabins, but the TSA emphasizes that its list "is not all-inclusive": "Other items that may be deemed to present a potential threat may also be prohibited."
No doubt it was also an aberration when a woman at JFK was forced to drink from three bottles of her own breast milk to show that the contents did not "represent a potential threat." But once you see enough isolated incidents (and we have to assume that many cases do not get reported in the press), you start to see a pattern.
You might think that security screeners who are vigilant enough to intercept tiny toy guns would be highly effective at spotting real weapons. Yet as of June screeners were still missing one in four dummy guns, bombs, and knives in government tests. Historically, these tests have practically been designed to be passed.
By casting its net too widely, the TSA is making it harder for screeners, overzealous or not, to zero in on genuine threats. Now that the old model for responding to hijackers, based on the assumption that cooperation was the safest course, has been abandoned, terrorists will never again be able to take over airplanes armed with box cutters, let alone with scissors, pliers, wrenches, corkscrews, golf clubs, hockey sticks, or pool cues, to pick some of the sillier items on the TSA's list.
We may, along with the woman whose G.I. Joe was disarmed, "see the funny side of it." But airline security shouldn't be a joke.