Comics creator stopped by TSA for carrying script about writer under suspicion by TSA

Comics writer Mark Sable was detained and intensively questioned by the TSA for carrying a script for an upcoming comic book about a writer who is detained and intensively questioned by the TSA for writing a comic about terrorism.
"Flying from Los Angeles to New York for a signing at Jim Hanley's Universe Wednesday (May 13th), I was flagged at the gate for 'extra screening'. I was subjected to not one, but two invasive searches of my person and belongings. TSA agents then 'discovered' the script for Unthinkable #3. They sat and read the script while I stood there, without any personal items, identification or ticket, which had all been confiscated.

"The minute I saw the faces of the agents, I knew I was in trouble. The first page of the Unthinkable script mentioned 9/11, terror plots, and the fact that the (fictional) world had become a police state. The TSA agents then proceeded to interrogate me, having a hard time understanding that a comic book could be about anything other than superheroes, let alone that anyone actually wrote scripts for comics.

"I cooperated politely and tried to explain to them the irony of the situation. While Unthinkable blurs the line between fiction and reality, the story is based on a real-life government think tank where a writer was tasked to design worst-case terror scenarios. The fictional story of Unthinkable unfolds when the writer's scenarios come true, and he becomes a suspect in the terrorist attacks.

"In the end, I feel my privacy is a small price to pay for educating the government about the medium."

Comics artist Mark Sable detained for Unthinkable acts (Thanks, Nosehat!)

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  1. I agree with Geektronica.

    I bet he was delighted that this actually happened. I know I would be. Certainly gives the story a bit of eerie realism.

  2. The only thing recursive in that story is that the TSA very existence depends on justifying its existence. The rest is epiphenomena.

  3. One thing I’m wondering – the script wasn’t discovered until *after* the 2 initial screenings, so why was he pulled for those?

    Getting nailed for one screening is “random”, ok fine, but what was up with him being hassled further? Eerie…has the TSA developed the ability to sense when people are thinking dissident thoughts now, too? Thoughtcrimes all around!

  4. @ Iaminnocent #8: The only thing recursive in that story is that the TSA very existence depends on justifying its existence. The rest is epiphenomena.

    True, although epiphenomena such as this are themselves recursive in a fractally beautiful way too.

    On a less artistic note, this is yet another example of “mission creep” in the TSA.

    BTW, thanks for posting my first submitted Boing Boing link. =D

  5. I envy you!

    Who needs writing skills when you’ve got an evil agency ™ to come up with plot lines for you every time you fly!

    Also @#1 The ‘fractal’ comment was my favorite comment I’ve yet read on BB. Cheers!

  6. That is frigging awesome. In the age where irony is a high respected art form, consider yourself Mozart.

  7. Maybe he should write a short story where everyone can bring more than 3oz. of liquids on the plane.

  8. Whew!

    Thanks God TSA was on the ball. Had that Sable wacko managed to smuggle that script onto the plane he coulda stabbed somebody with it and taken over the plane!

  9. Censors are by definition handed the motive, method and opportunity to expand their jobs to protect themselves.

  10. If you don’t want trouble getting on (or off) a plane then don’t fly. If enough people get smart about it then you will see some big changes in the way it is all handled when these companies start dropping like flies due to massive profit drops.

  11. Wow, an autobiography written before it happens. Maybe he should write about an author winning the lottery.

  12. From what Sable wrote, it looks like the headline is incorrect:

    “I was flagged at the gate for ‘extra screening’. I was subjected to not one, but two invasive searches of my person and belongings. TSA agents then ‘discovered’ the script for Unthinkable #3”

    Note the word “then”. So, first the screenings, THEN the script was discovered. Unless by putting ‘discovered’ in scare quotes is suppose make us believe Sable was set up by someone …

    Which is not to say that there not are massive issues with TSA.

  13. Has Charles Kaufmann opted rights for the screen version yet?

    I hear that Donald Kaufman beat him to it.

  14. i know that customs can search your computers, read your mail, and so on when you go from one country to another. but does the tsa really have the right to read your manuscripts going from one state to another? many lawyers and executives carry documents which are extremely confidential. must i give up right to privacy completely to fly within amerika?

  15. A fiction may usurp the entertaining irony: government can be educated outside its primordial bounds?

    A transient transfer of knowledge flung into an obvious oblivion, more than likely.

    And, privacy isn’t currency. Ever.

  16. Warning on carrying comics about the TSA.

    1) Send the original copy by UPS Red Label Tube to destination.

    2) Carry copy on board with you for recursive actions by the TSA boarding agents to gain publicity for your comic.

    A) you will have the original at your destination a day late if the copy gets confiscated. B) hold an auction for the officially notarized copy with narrated details of the experience and how close it came to being real life if they let you keep it.

    We might have a business model here.

  17. This event could implies that the guy was tagged because someone has been at his e-mail, thus the “extra screening”. The chance of this being a random event has got to be slimmer than pulling a royal flush.

    As mentioned earlier, this really is a bad case of mission creep. Anybody and everybody in government is looking for bad guys while having difficulty in completing their own core mission.

    Fail.

  18. In the script, the artist asked for a bottle of water while in custody.

    While in custody, Mark Sable asked for water!

    Whoa.

  19. Bah! Not nearly ironic enough. Call me when he writes an article about this incident and someone is stopped by the TSA for reading it.

  20. older Americans may remember humorous travellers tales of the hapless subjected to scrutiny and sharp interrogation for possessing suspicious articles like “books” while crossing Iron Curtain borders. Oh how they later laughed over cocktails when relating the bristly mono-browed, uniformed simians pawings and incomprehension to their friends and colleagues upon safe return home. Irony so thick you could puke.

  21. If I was a really clever writer who wanted some attention for my work, I’d stage something like this.

    Of course maybe this was just a dry run for when the comic book was published – to see if the comic book scanners were up to the task.

  22. Having read the first issue of Unthinkable, and awaiting the second eagerly, I can say that it’s definitely the sort of thing to make twitchy guards twitchier, but a great read at the same time.

  23. I’m with #11, is the TSA just a ruse to see how willing people are to give up their 5th Amendment (pretty willing, evidently)? Like travelling makes it any more likely that you can affect the outcome.

  24. I’m waiting for the TSA riots. You know, someone gets infuriated beyond thinking by TSA agents & assaults one, then the waiting line proceeds to maul every TSA agent they can get their hands on(especially the frequent fliers.) Order is restored, & there are stern warnings by authorities until a succession of juries refuse to convict the said rioters. Naw, never happen.

  25. Oh right. They don’t have comic book (or script) detectors. I’d have to do something to pick me out and take me to the back room.

  26. heh heh!, ahh, they are SUCH dipshits;
    “That does not mean TSA screeners don’t find anything. Notable triumphs have included seizing a tiny pair of wire cutters from a Special Forces veteran who had been shot in the jaw in Afghanistan and needed the cutters to snip his jaw open if he started to choke”

  27. >Maybe he should write a short story where >everyone can bring more than 3oz. of liquids on >the plane.

    !WIN!

  28. yeah, the 3 ounce rule. Back to the more-than-one seat question: how many tickets does it take to make a gallon of TATP?

  29. This reminds me of a short story I wrote called Commenting on a Boing Boing Post about the TSA.

  30. @24 So, first the screenings, THEN the script was discovered. Unless by putting ‘discovered’ in scare quotes is suppose make us believe Sable was set up by someone

    It wouldn’t be the first time. If another agency tells the TSA that they should pay extra attention to a certain person, they do, even if they have no idea why they’re doing it. My boyfriend almost always gets a SSSS boarding pass when he flies. He was once asked by the TSA whether he was carrying any export-restricted technology (for example, strong crypto). I’m pretty sure the TSA didn’t think of that question by themselves on the spur of the moment. This past Christmas, my 5-year-old and I got SSSS boarding passes on our transfer from an international flight to a domestic flight. The TSA people seemed more surprised about it than I was, especially since my daughter and I really don’t fit any of the stereotypical threat profiles.

  31. it’s not complicated. The no-fly list is bullshit. The TSA is bullshit. The “bin-Ladens under the bed” is bullshit. You were all sold a big bag of bullshit by the scum that owned Bush and Cheney and you lapped it up. Now the scum are gone, time to grow up and move on.

  32. EH @35 I’m with #11, is the TSA just a ruse to see how willing people are to give up their 5th Amendment (pretty willing, evidently)?

    The 5th amendment is right to grand jury, protection from double jeopardy, protection from self-incrimination, due process, and eminent domain. I think you mean the 4th amendment.

  33. “I … tried to explain to them the irony of the situation.”

    *shakes head*
    The poor fool. Trying to reason with the TSA.

  34. I tried my best to stop them, yes, I tried to make them wait
    And I appealed to their decency show mercy on this day
    I issued them strong orders on pain of death and disarray
    But in the end they would not listen and raised their lances anyway

    Men of no account they were, their breeding crude and low
    With not a trace of wisdom, Grace or virtue in their souls
    Yet trained them long and hard I did to bend them to the crown
    To act as tools of justice, follow edict handed down

    You see these were not militia men, a-fighting for their homes
    Nor fathers, sons nor husbands, sire, but foreigners on loan
    Mercenary killers, career soldiers to a man
    Lashing out with vengeance one cannot accept or understand

    I could not instill the discipline ’twas duty to inspire
    And they responded in the end to instincts of the basest kind
    Now on my knee before you here, I drop my eyes in shame
    Albeit little consolation take my head for I’m to blame

    O, so spoke the leader on losing control

  35. 1894, muthafukka:

    If the Led Striker call it a strike,
    Or the papers call it a war,
    They know not much what I am like,
    Nor what he is, My Avatar.

    Through many roads, by me possessed,
    He shambles forth in cosmic guise;
    He is the Jester and the Jest,
    And he the Text himself applies.

    The Celt is in his heart and hand,
    The Gaul is in his brain and nerve;
    Where, cosmopolitanly planned,
    He guards the Redskin’s dry reserve

    His easy unswept hearth he lends
    From Labrador to Guadeloupe;
    Till, elbowed out by sloven friends,
    He camps, at sufferance, on the stoop.

    Calm-eyed he scoffs at Sword and Crown,
    Or, panic-blinded, stabs and slays:
    Blatant he bids the world bow down,
    Or cringing begs a crust of praise;

    Or, sombre-drunk, at mine and mart,
    He dubs his dreary brethren Kings.
    His hands are black with blood — his heart
    Leaps, as a babe’s, at little things.

    But, through the shift of mood and mood,
    Mine ancient humour saves him whole —
    The cynic devil in his blood
    That bids him mock his hurrying soul;

    That bids him flout the Law he makes,
    That bids him make the Law he flouts,
    Till, dazed by many doubts, he wakes
    The drumming guns that — have no doubts;

    That checks him foolish-hot and fond,
    That chuckles through his deepest ire,
    That gilds the slough of his despond
    But dims the goal of his desire;

    Inopportune, shrill-accented,
    The acrid Asiatic mirth
    That leaves him, careless ‘mid his dead,
    The scandal of the elder earth.

    How shall he clear himself, how reach
    Your bar or weighed defence prefer —
    A brother hedged with alien speech
    And lacking all interpreter?

    Which knowledge vexes him a space;
    But, while Reproof around him rings,
    He turns a keen untroubled face
    Home, to the instant need of things.

    Enslaved, illogical, elate,
    He greets the embarrassed Gods, nor fears
    To shake the iron hand of Fate
    Or match with Destiny for beers.

    Lo, imperturbable he rules,
    Unkempt, desreputable, vast —
    And, in the teeth of all the schools,
    I — I shall save him at the last!

  36. One thing I’m wondering – the script wasn’t discovered until *after* the 2 initial screenings, so why was he pulled for those?

    Getting nailed for one screening is “random”, ok fine, but what was up with him being hassled further? Eerie…has the TSA developed the ability to sense when people are thinking dissident thoughts now, too? Thoughtcrimes all around!

    First, sometimes you just get randomly pulled, or if your itinerary is a little wonky (lots of 1 way flights), you’ll get the “*****SSSSS******” thing all over your ticket and they will circle it in marker.

    Second, even IF you get picked for secondary screening, they don’t make you spread your undies all over the table – it’s more like a cursory bag check, wanding, and maybe a swabbing, maybe the sniffer machine.

    Third, if you ask questions or are a smart ass, you’ll get sent up the chain. If you keep your mouth shut, you’ll pass through fine. Yea yea I know it’s giving in to the man, but it’s true.

    Fourth, the TSA doesn’t have “subversive script sensors” and mind reading machines. I think :^)

    Seriously, use Occam’s razor here. What’s more reasonable? That there’s a TSA conspiracy and this guy got put on some secret list, or that he “encouraged” it. Someone who writes comics like his no doubt has no love relationship with TSA and their ilk. And it probably came out whether he meant it or not.

    And my bet still is that this was a major PR coup for him, and it will raise sales.

  37. Erm, Mr Holtt?

    Occam’s razor principle prescribes that one should stick to the simplest explanation, the one where only essential assumptions are made and in the smallest number necessary.

    To lean toward the hypothesis that this was staged by Mr Sable you have to assume:
    – that he had no valid reason to fly that day;
    – that he had no valid reason to carry his script with him;
    – that he somehow did something to get flagged;
    – that he was certain that an agent would read his manuscript;
    – that he was certain that what was in the manuscript could justify further investigation.

    Now, to lean toward TSA malevolence there isn’t any need to invoke a conpiracy: they’ve been exceeding their mandate and investigating people for what they think more and more. There is no need for an assumption that they knew what Mr Sable opinions are: this is of common knowledge.

    Really, which way does the Occam’s razor cuts?

  38. I was stopped by an airport security gentleman when coming back from a comics convention in Italy the other day. He was very polite, and patiently explained to me the various techniques and tricks he was using during the impromptu interrogation so that I could follow closely. He asked me a few questions about Frank Miller to check if I was a convincing comicsy sort of fellow and did a bit where he asked me what I thought of ‘Gary Busley,’ and then explained that I was supposed to correct him and offer ‘Simon Bisley’ instead. I am not very good at being questioned!

    Anyway, he didn’t think much of my webcomic pencils that I showed him. I volunteered those, as is my habit. Feedback is feedback, you know?

  39. A guy writes up a plan for a terrorist attack and it comes true?

    Sounds like an Orson Scott Carf novel to me…

  40. Hey everyone…Mark Sable, the writer in question here.

    First, thanks to Cory (whose book Little Brother I read and enjoyed just before traveling on said trip) for writing about this. And I appreciate everyone’s comments.

    I figured I would try to make myself available for questions (ask away) and fill in a bit more detail.

    I think IAMINNOCENT has it about right. I’m not particularly conspiracy minded in real life, although it does make for good fiction.

    It’s remotely possible that I was flagged SSSS because of my writing. I only mention this because I created an ARG to market UNTHINKABLE, one that might have aroused the suspicions of, say, the NSA.

    But as one of the intelligence sources I used for the book put it, he would have been surprised if any of our security organizations were competent enough to make that connection.

    Most likely, I was flagged SSSS for an…unusual flight pattern (6 flights in 10 days) that was full of seemingly one way trips, and that I changed a bit relatively the last minute. (Ironically, my penultimate destination was originally Prague, so I came just short of, as others have so aptly put it, “the full Kafka”).

    I have been flagged on occasion for that reason.

    What I found strange and took issue with was not the initial flagging or even the extra screening. It was the fact they went out of their way to read the script (which I had brought with me to type handwritten corrections due the next day into my laptop).

    There were plenty of documents in my bag they could have read through. And while the first page of the script did contain words like “9/11” “terrorist attacks” and “police state”, it was in an extremely small font.

    Regardless of how or why I was stopped, it was unnecessary of them and quite possibly a violation of my civil rights to read the script.

    And let’s be honest, what was reading the script going to tell them? Do you think the average TSA agent – someone who doesn’t need a high school diploma for the job – knows the difference between Hezbollah and Hamas (or Hadassah for that matter?)? They don’t remotely have the training to analyze suspicious reading materials.

    The TSA by its own admission is only designed to stop “stupid” terrorists.

    I’d love if this helped the book sell more copies of Unthinkable (and surely, the only way to really punish the TSA is to buy as many books as possible), but I’d much rather my work be judged on its own merits.

  41. TSA: What is this?

    Sable: A comic book script about terrorism.

    TSA: ORLY?

    Planned or not, that’s about all it takes to get things rolling.

  42. Mark I’m not out to defend the TSA or lambaste you here. I just simply don’t buy into the tin-hat and knee jerk mentality about “conspiracy”. As you say, the TSA ain’t smart enough for that :^)

  43. To lean toward the hypothesis that this was staged by Mr Sable you have to assume:
    – that he had no valid reason to fly that day;
    – that he had no valid reason to carry his script with him;
    – that he somehow did something to get flagged;
    – that he was certain that an agent would read his manuscript;
    – that he was certain that what was in the manuscript could justify further investigation.

  44. Hollt – I agree with you a grand TSA conspiracy is highly unlikely. I allow for the possibility that the NSA could have had me on some list for the ARG, but I admit it’s a remote one.

    My issue isn’t so much that once the TSA figured out that it was “about terrorism” they read the script. I don’t think they should have been looking through reading materials, and I don’t think they are qualified to judge what is or isn’t terrorist material.

    I’m also I think understandably defensive about any accusation that the incident was somehow staged by me. I wouldn’t risk my reputation for the publicity, not to mention jeopardize my ability to travel.

    That said, if anyone’s got any PR ideas for the remaining issues that don’t end with me on a no fly list…please let me know;)

  45. yo dawg
    I herd u liek stories ’bout terrorists.
    so we put a terrorist in your terrorist story so you can read about terrorists who read about terrorists.

  46. sooner or later, every bit of writing crosses a border. Should border guards be the arbiters of what you may read?

  47. One thing I’d add, while not a fan of the TSA, comparing them to the Basij etc. I think devalues the very real suffering that Iranians are suffering at their hands.

    Not saying that to criticize anyone, I just don’t want anyone to think that my hassles are anywhere near the horrors that go on, whether they are perpetrated in Iran or some extraordinary rendition black site.

    I don’t want to capitalize on others misery.

  48. think of it as where things may end up if not stopped now. I see little difference in their rank and file. The potential is there. The Basiji aren’t monsters, just ordinary people given license to behave like monsters.

  49. Yo.

    I’m all for hyperbole and rampant paranoia but if you actually READ the original article it doesn’t mention a “script about writer under suspicion by TSA” and especially not “an upcoming comic book about a writer who is detained and intensively questioned by the TSA for writing a comic about terrorism.”

    The writer in the comic book script actually works FOR the Guv’mint, and is not a “suspect” of the TSA, or “detained and questioned” by anyone…

    I can see how this was easily overlooked as it completely lacks the hee-haw irony and ‘pat ourselves on the back cuz we are so much smarter than the TSA’-gotcha-ism that makes for a good headline.

    Yes, yes, TSA bad, personal freedom good. I just prefer it when the ones stretching the truth and making shit up for effect are the guys on the other side. Natch?

  50. I am totally going to write a script about a hot TSA woman pulling me out of line for a Penthouse forum moment, and carry it with me every time I fly.

  51. the TSA was created by people who understand the use of power. It will not be un-created without equal force applied. Do you think you can reason with them?

  52. “Getting nailed for one screening is “random”, ok fine, but what was up with him being hassled further? Eerie…has the TSA developed the ability to sense when people are thinking dissident thoughts now, too? Thoughtcrimes all around! ”

    the technology is being developed as we speak. in a newscientist article there were these rudimentary images displayed the thoughts of the subjects. Considering the potential advances as well they may be able to access past thoughts as well.

  53. I just simply don’t buy into the tin-hat and knee jerk mentality about “conspiracy”.

    I’m noticing that in recent years the population has been successfully taught by the media to perceive disbelief in official statements, and lack of faith in dominant institutions, as a kind of mental disease. This reverses 50 years of progress in public consciousness about power.

    I suppose that this worship of authority is the natural state of things, and the world I grew up in was an aberration. The exposure of Vietnam War lies, COINTELPRO operations, CIA drug-running and the Iran-Contra scheme taught a couple of generations of Americans that sometimes powerful people do bad things and lie about it. Really. In real life. You weren’t crazy for suspecting it, and you weren’t wrong if you observed it.

    And sometimes the papers would even report it.

  54. Maybe he was planning to stage an impromptu performance with the passengers on the plane, thus getting his audience to question the efficacy of the TSA and endangering us all.

  55. you are all ignoring the incredible part of the story: That someone form the TSA could READ

  56. Next time, encrypt your printed manuscript, and they won’t be able to read it. Of course, you’ll have to answer additional questions, but think of the fun!

  57. just have this opening line on all your documents: “What are you doing reading this, you manure-breathed, ape-fingered little flunkey?”

  58. @IamInnocent: I had to actually sign in to let you know that you actually used recursive incorrectly. It’s an influx grammatical error, if you just rearrange your sentence it’ll be correct. Sorry for the nitpick.

    @nosehat: that goes without saying Oo…

    #21 posted by Anonymous, June 28, 2009 5:40 AM
    If you don’t want trouble getting on (or off) a plane then don’t fly. If enough people get smart about it then you will see some big changes in the way it is all handled when these companies start dropping like flies due to massive profit drops.
    —-

    Yeah and just have the poor fellow drive all the way to f’ing Jim Hanley’s Universe in Manhattan. Whattya…. a newb?

    —–

    Anyways… The TSA is such a waste of government funding it could have actually gone to such more useful things. My Uncle works as a bag scanner at the airport and it’s really just a whole lot of sitting around and giving some quick glances at a screen and moving along. It’s nearly useless skillwise so you know you can’t put it in your resume as an esteemed career and you don’t even benefit anyone. It’s a real shitter of a job filled with people waiting for retirement, in school, or going nowhere in life. I’ve asked about this situation with him to get an idea of what the person may have been thinking before even “reading” the script. He mentions that it’s customary to read emails, so the screener pretty much must have thought it to be an email message.

    @holtt: Oo… you can’t “actually” talk to TSA and create a sales/PR coup. It doesn’t work that way, he was either pulled out or he gave them some kind of reason to be pulled out. He could have argued with the scanner person, that usually does it quickly.

    That’s all I wanted to say before breezing through this site and on to greener pastures. You’re welcome.

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