So I raved on (and on I realize) about the great parts of Vegas. However, under it’s neon sheen of abundance and glamour (albeit a strange, cruise-shipesque glamour), there are definitely things about Vegas that bugged the heck out of me and make a return trip just a tad less likely. I have a top 10 list of those as well, but first, I feel I must rant about the biggest annoyance of my entire trip, which happened far from the bright lights and dancing girls.
I’m talking about my run-in with a truly evil force in this world:
Airport security at McCarran
Now, I realize that since 9/11 airport security has gotten a bit tighter. I’m ok with waiting a bit longer in security lines, taking my shoes off and putting them through the x-ray and although it is a trifle annoying, I’m even ok with limiting myself to 3 oz bottles of necessities like shampoo and saline solution. Although I’m not quite sure what more than a quart of tiny bottles of hair products, make-up and toothpaste can do (I think it might be bomb related), I grabbed a generic plastic bag and filled it with all my toiletry needs. As we were only going on a four day mini-break, we decided not to check any luggage since the last two times I’ve taken planes, my checked bags have ended up in different cities than I have. We didn’t have a single problem in Chicago. When we tried to return though, my bag was yanked out of the grey tote, held up and scrutinized by two female TSA agents.
“Have you ever seen a bag this big?” one of them asked.
“No,” her partner said, “it must be two, maybe three quarts.”
Granted, it was a big bag, but it was also less than half full of tiny bottles, most of which were also half full. No matter. I got pulled to the side and the contents of my bag dumped out in front of me. See, my bag was bigger than a quart. Regulations clearly say one clear quart sized bag. I had three options 1) go back and buy a quart size bag and return through security for another check, 2) throw the entire contents of my bag away or 3) go back to the ticket counter and check my bag. My husband, nice guy that he is, offered a fourth solution. He dumped his tiny sandwich bag of things and let me cram mine in. All but three items fit in his bag. Which clearly showed the woman that I had less than a quart worth of 3 oz. liquids. And yet she still dumped my extra three tubes. Why? Because they weren’t in the clear quart-sized bag.
Now, unless I am really mistaken, the actual size and material of the bag will in no way stop any sort of terrorist attack from happening. Nor can a mere plastic bag be used for any nefarious purposes on board an aircraft. The actual “dangerous” materials are the liquids. And I clearly had less than a quart worth of them. She explained to me that the rule was clearly to make it easy for airport security to make sure travelers did not have the extra liquids that could somehow harm the plane. I understood, but I also clearly had less than a quart of liquids. Then she made it very clear to me that she was throwing away my extras, not because I was over my limit, but because there was a rule and she had the power to follow it.
It put me in mind of another encounter I’d had with a government employee who had a taste of power and went way too far with it: the border patrol.
Years ago, on the exact same trip that also showed me Vegas for the first time as an adult, a band of friends and I decided to head slightly south of the border for a visit to Tijuana. Friends had moved to San Diego right out of college, so on a visit with them, we took a day trip to Mexico just to drink cheap booze, shop for cheaper trinkets, and well, say we’d been to Mexico. During our foray into another country, one of my friends bought a little stone pipe for her father. Her father has a huge pipe collection and at the time even subscribed to a pipe magazine. We were still pretty poor since none of us had real jobs, so the sweet $2 she’d paid for it was perfect.
As we were crossing the border, they asked what we had to declare. Two of us had nothing, but she honestly told them she had a wooden carving and a pipe. None of us thought anything of it, until she was wisked away by a guard to an area to be searched. Her pipe was taken and she was told it would be destroyed because it was “drug paraphernalia.” She told the officer it was a gift for her father, and he looked at her, laughed and said “yeah, sure it is.”
Now, I realize we were young (22), and that he probably had heard the excuse before, but we had no hint of drugs on us. Heck, we’d each only had one drink in Mexico. We were, however, recent college grads and felt a great injustice was being done. Both because the pipe had been taken without any sort of cause and because we’d been honest. If we were tying to hide something or be deceptive, she could have said nothing. It’s not like the checked any of us. Heck, they didn’t even ask to see our licenses or any sort of identification when we crossed. All they did was ask us to declare our citizenship. So, we asked what the deal was. One of us was particularly vocal about how ridiculous they were being. He was asked what he purchased in Mexico, to which he replied, “A chess set which is perfectly legal on both sides of the border.”
Apparently that was the wrong answer. They didn’t like his tone and the officer actually told him, “I want you to know that everything I’m doing right now, I’m doing simply because I can.”
My friend retorted, “And that’s a wonderful abuse of power.” At which point he was escorted into a back room by one of the officers. We were given a pamphlet to read on what could and could not be taken across the border and another officer tried (and failed) to explain why they took the pipe. According to the literature, in order to be classified as paraphernalia, there has to be no other possible use other than drug related. It was a pipe. Last time I checked, their primary use was for smoking tobacco. The exact same pipes are sold on the American side of the border. Sure, they could be used for drugs. But they could also be used by someone like my friend’s father. We argued this, but to no avail.
Our friend returned on oddly friendly terms with the officer. It seems in the back room the officer had made him take his shoes off and lift up his shirt, but that’s where the search had ended. I believe a strip search was threatened, however, my friend had the good senes to mention that his father worked at the Pentagon as part of military intelligence. The officer was much nicer after that.
We left, without the pipe or further hassle.
While my most recent run-in only left me sans some free hotel shampoo, conditioner and lotion, it still left me angry. Both times we’d broken no real law. We weren’t going to hurt ourselves or anyone else. We were detained, harrassed and our stuff tossed away for no other reason than an employee with a bit of power and a serious hard on for the rules wanted to make a point. I just wanted to shake the woman and tell her to get over herself, but I was pretty sure that would lead to me being led off to a tiny room and since my dad is just a fire chief in a podunk town, I’m guessing a full cavity search might have ensued.
I also wanted to offer her another option, to realize I wasn’t a terrorist, didn’t have a quarts worth of liquids on me and that the bag was just as arbitrary as the job she was doing keeping our country “safe.” But considering how amazed she was that two or three quart plastic bags existed, I doubt she’d understand.