Security theater tees

Big Brother Tees, sporting a variety of slogans relevant to airport security: "Nobody is safer when you take my water," "Cast Member of Airport Security Theater," "You can only detect and respond," "Technology can't solve security problems," "Franklin's Essential Liberty," "What airport security procedures miss."

Someone will come along any moment in the comments to explain that if you get hassled for wearing one of these, it's your own fault for antagonizing them.

But let's be clear: the TSA's job is to keep airplanes safe. Criticizing the TSA does not undermine the safety of airplanes. Hurting a screener's feelings does not endanger our skies. Refusing to believe in the pseudoscience of binary explosives made in airplanes from the contents of your toothpaste tube does not constitute noncompliance with the magic-anti-terror-baggie rule.

Big Brother T-Shirts (Thanks, Bruce!)


  1. Aack, they stole my idea already. Just the other day dropping off someone at the airport I remarked that the Dept. of Homeland Security should really be called the Dept. of Homeland Theater.

  2. Well, Cory, I’ll oblige.

    Yes the T-shirts made me smile; yes I think airport security arrangements are dumb; yes I’m glad I don’t have to fly through US airports on a regular basis; yes I object to ‘authorities’ abusing their power by bogus appeals to ‘law’ (I’m currently in the process of making a complaint to a hospital for doing just that).

    All that said, wearing one of those through airport security is provocation to my mind. Your very next post is about the plight of joblessness. I don’t think the guys processing passengers are the ones responsible for the policies; they are probably just glad to be getting paid and I can understand it’s a job which generates frustration.

    If they abuse their position (ie without provocation), I’ll be first in line to support you. Just not wearing that T-shirt.

    1. wearing one of those through airport security is provocation to my mind.

      Gee, how about we just stop provoking terrorists and start following a medieval interpretation of Islamic law. If there is a terror attack after we submit to all their demands (ie without provocation) I’ll be the first in line to support you. Just not if you can’t make a few (ok maybe more than a few) small changes in your lifestyle.

      Reductio ad absurdum.

    2. I don’t understand. You find abusing authority OK provided there’s provocation?

      Doesn’t authority confer responsibility? If the state gives you the power to arbitrarily detain and search people without particularized suspicion or probable cause, doesn’t that extraordinary privilege also carry the (rather ordinary) burden of not maliciously using your power to punish people who merely disagree with you?

  3. Does your reductio ad absurdium work the other way, too? Would there be no insult to TSA workers sported on a T-shirt that you would consider beyond the pale? There was enough venom being poured on Lindsey Lohan on here just the other day for the text on her middle finger…

  4. I would love to see a whole flight worth of people wearing these. The TSA is a joke, and I am glad my only post 9/11 experience with American airports was a brief one. I found it hilarious that they carefully searched the shoes of everyone who didn’t have an American passport, while those who had one filed onto the plane without any checks – That’s a great profiling system you got there, TSA.

  5. Cory:

    I don’t understand where you got the idea that I find abusing authority OK provided there’s provocation from so we fully don’t understand each other there :)

    Yes authority confers responsibility, absolutely. Agreed also that even if people disagree with you, that’s not (or shouldn’t be) an excuse to maliciously use one’s power (I am in the country of Voltaire, after all :) ). But my personal view is that unneccessary provocation is not a good way of helping authority to be exercised responsibly.

    I somehow don’t see people ‘accidentally’ wearing these shirts through airport security, and the people bearing the brunt of our frustrations with it aren’t the ones responsible for the dumb rules.

    In my current row with a hospital, I didn’t set out to provoke. I made a perfectly legitimate request I’ve made hundreds of times and was turned down on the pretext of a “law” which simply doesn’t exist. Now that I will pursue, for exactly the kind of reasons you outline. But not by wearing a T-shirt ;-)

    1. I don’t understand where you got the idea that I find abusing authority OK provided there’s provocation

      Probably here: “If they abuse their position (ie without provocation), I’ll be first in line to support you.” In other words, you were defining abuses of authority to be unprovoked responses, which implies that responses to provocations don’t count as abuse. Perhaps you misspoke?

    2. I love the whole angle of the “provocation” argument.

      Is there a statute somewhere that covers “provocation”? I don’t think so. You could argue that disturbing the peace applies, but that’s not “provocation”.

      “Provocation” is entirely subjective, and therefore a piss poor factor to take into consideration in any debate. It’s a copout, for someone who does something wrong to justify their actions.

      Can one person’s expression, words and even gestures, actually justify an official abuse of power?

      Authorities should have clearly defined roles, procedures, and protocols. A planeload of people wearing these T-shirts should have no effect on the TSA doing its job. If they DO treat people different, then they are abusing their official power. Period.

  6. The T-shirts are awesome – and I’d proudly wear one any day I didn’t have to fly.

    Wearing the T-shirt outside the airport makes people laugh, spread awareness surrounding the TSAs draconian policies, and generally shows other beleaguered citizens that they are not alone in their dissent.

    Wearing the T-shirt inside the airport will get you ‘secondary screening’ with a TSA employee who will likely be unconcerned with how well you articulate an argument about how he/she should do his/her job.

  7. The checks are only useful against amateur terrorists. Professional terrorists (like the ones who worked 9/11) know they’re not coming back. If the contents of a sneaker sole and a tube of toothpaste are enough to make an explosion powerful enough to bring down a jet liner, there are a thousand was to get them past security. Why, they could replace the bone marrow in one leg with a liter of C4 and no one could tell.
    So they took away your penknife? You could do equal damage with a metal pen. Never mind that the pen could be designed to contain a blade, or could be filed down on-flight.
    Cell phones and Laptops aren’t checked very well. You can’t find the 4 blades hidden between the metal battery and the metal casing with just a quick x-ray.
    I have a 5 hour wait after checking in and before boarding… I can go to the restrooms and take apart my suitcase, providing me with a lovely long metal wheel axis… No one is checking me at this point. Who’s to know if I left my carry-on in the duty free?
    Martial artist kill with a few blows. Imagine what a sufficiently trained and zealous guy could do to you with a metal briefcase.

    1. Hell, there’s tons of ways to cause carnage in an airliner that no security screening can do anything against.
      If someone was really determined there’s no stopping them.
      For instance, a razor sharp ceramic knife tucked behind a belt buckle. Or on the plane itself just grab a wine bottle and start smashing people’s skulls. Or before the plane reaches too high an altitude open up one of the emergency exits. A couple of strike anywhere matches up a shirt sleeve can be used to set a bathroom full of paper on fire. The possibilities are endless.
      So called airport security is a joke- nothing but a show put on to soothe the minds of the idiot public.

  8. Now all clap your hands together and repeat: “I do believe in binary explosives! I do believe in binary explosives!” or the Airport Security Fairy will die.

  9. jere7my: I meant “if the authorities act abusively without any provocation to do so, I will protest”.

    It’s like all the debates here about photographers being arrested by the Met and so on. It often seems the police are completely and utterly out of line, and they probably are, but I have to say that I usually find myself agreeing with those who argue the person arrested was being provocative. That doesn’t excuse the behaviour of the authorities in absolutum, but to my mind it weakens the case against them in that instance.

    1. If you’re not allowed to exercise your freedoms, then it’s the same as not having them at all.

    2. In a free society we are free to protest against authority. One of the responsibilities of authority is to respect the right to protest. Protest within the law is never provocation.

      1. That’s a good answer inasmuch as it provides a case for condemning Lindsey Lohan (for middle-finger contempt of court) and exonerating the T-shirts.

        However I’m not so sure that “protest within the law is never provocation”.

        Recently, an extremist right-wing party here wanted to organise a (pork) sausage barbecue event in a predominantly muslim neighbourhood. On paper the organisation had a right to freedom of expression, but the event was banned, as a potential threat to public order, since it was clearly a provocation. The exercise of civic freedoms involves all sides playing fair, methinks.

        Not saying these T-shirts are a threat to public order, but that I’m not sure about that sentence.

        1. Skokie, Illinois. (From Wikipedia):

          Historically, Skokie has a demographic that differs from most suburbs of Chicago. Most famously, Skokie has been home to a large Jewish population, particularly after World War II, and it is the only suburb of Chicago with more Jewish schools than Catholic schools. …

          Skokie has garnered national attention at least twice for court cases that have been decided by the United States Supreme Court.

          In the mid-1970s, the Village got embroiled with the National Socialist Party of America (a neo-Nazi group) in a case addressing the First Amendment right to assemble, a case which ultimately the Village lost.

          I haven’t heard about the pork barbecue, details?

          1. Thanks for the link. I would hope that in the U.S. the barbecue would not have been banned (regardless of whether I’d approve of the motives behind it or not). I’d also hope that no violence would break out, and if it did, the police would be able to keep the peace safely. (Yeah, and if wishes were horses rides would be free.)

            Freedom entails responsibility and risk.
            Life is not safe.

    3. Sometimes you become an agent provocateur just to draw attention to an issue. You know it’s legal and okay to do something but also know it’s going to draw the ire of those in authority so you do it to draw attention to those abuses of power (e.g. wear these t-shirts or give the cops the middle finger). A great example of this is the sit-ins during the civil rights movement. Did they also lose your sympathy because they were provoking the situation?

      1. If you sport the T-shirt as a conscious agent provocateur protest, I think your next move needs to be very well thought-out if your protest is going to be effective.

        A lot of the ‘rights infringement’ videos here on Boing Boing remind me of that scene from Monty Python, ‘help help, I’m being oppressed!’. (On the other hand, just to even things up a little, I thought this one on the Love Police made a good protest excellently – and nobody got arrested or pushed downstairs).

        I think the perception of whether the TSA regs are simply a pain in the backside or an infringement of fundamental rights is partly a pond difference. It certainly doesn’t look to be on a par with the issues at stake in the civil rights movement from here.

        I’m not sure what the best way of dispensing with all the relatively useless inconvenience is, but I don’t think this T-shirt is it. It’s as much about marketing as protest (though the more I get dragged into this, the more I’m tempted to buy one :) ).

        Oh, and for a delightfully non-TSA way to fly, may I recommend flying out of Keflavik?

        1. I’d venture to say that those videos still illustrate a good point: no matter how much we talk about how expanded police powers/number of police will make us safe or how tougher laws on this and that will protect the children, at the end of the day those police, judges, and jurors are still human and still can become slaves to their emotions (such as anger and a need for revenge) as much as any other average Joe. I’m not saying police are necessarily bad people – I know several good cops and generally never have a problem with them – but it only takes one acting like an assclown over misinterpretation/lack of knowledge of the law for them to become hostile very quickly (either to protect their pride or just because they get off on that kind of thing). Same applies for the TSA, though from everything I’ve read/heard it sounds like most people working for the TSA are people who should be working at the DMV (recruitment poster: Do you like mindlessly following procedures? Pissing people off? Being useless and corrupt and getting paid for it? We have the job for you!).

          I agree though, there are better ways to protest the TSA than spending money on a t-shirt. If anything at least screen print your own or something.

          I personally have no interaction with the TSA though as I’ve never flown in the many, many years I’ve been alive. :)

    4. It doesn’t matter how you phrase it; you’re still saying it’s acceptable for authorities to abuse power if indirectly provoked.

      And no, it never is.

      Sure, if a guy gets in my face and calls my mother a whore, I’ll probably smack him. I’ll also get arrested for assault.

      If you wear a t-shirt mocking the authorities, and they detain you, or abuse their power because of it, they should be fired.

      And although you may ‘expect’ a reaction; we shouldn’t have to; and it’s not acceptable; any more than me assaulting someone for forming a false and irrelevant lexical collection about my mother.

      In essence Cory recognises that it’s a possibility, but states that it shouldn’t be.

  10. I eagerly await a picture of Mr. Doctorow passing through a TSA screening point with one of these shirts on and visible.

    You know, since he thinks it’s such a good idea.

  11. I find it fascinating that all respondents on both sides of the argument (wear while flying/no wear) accept without question the proposition that wearing such a T shirt will so anger a “security” offical that the wearer is likely to be subject to inappropriate and and excessive interference.

    Says it all, really.

  12. Professional terrorists? There are people who make a living by blowing themselves up?

  13. Well said Cory.

    As for those who consider this a provocation we need to get over the terror victim mindset that we have for cops, the IRS, radical Muslims, third world dictatorships, and other ‘scary’ groups. They are humans who can respond at a level beyond their id, they are not reptiles, and they can exercise self control. Unfortunately few seem to expect this of them which just encourages the abuse cycle.

  14. When I flew on vacation this year, I stupidly did not check all pockets of my backpack when re-packing it. It turned out I had left a computer tool in a tiny side pocket — kind of a Swiss Army knife, complete with a couple of blades.

    The thing showed up on the X-ray, of course, and after some searching (even *I* didn’t know what the screener was looking for), the TSA official found it. I was wanded and given a pat-down, which under the circumstances makes sense.

    The official was very polite, and gave me the option of FedEx-ing the thing back to myself; their station had envelopes ready.

    That was it.

    Now, I’m 40 years old and white (though I wear a LOT of black), so maybe I don’t fit a profile that would call for more aggressive treatment, but still, apart from the annoyance of a delay, nothing bad happened.

    My point is that at least some of the TSA folks are calm, polite people just doing a job. They don’t break out the mace and handcuffs if you just follow the procedures — even when you’re a careless idiot like me who is practically inviting a 3rd degree.

    If you don’t like the security theater, please remember to distinguish the ones who created it from the ones paid to enforce it.

  15. I’m on the “always gets secondary screening” list anyway, so I’ll definitely buy one and wear it next time I fly.

  16. $32-$36.99 each? Are they woven from unicorn hair and stitched by leprechauns?

    -Darren MacLennan

  17. “I think the perception of whether the TSA regs are simply a pain in the backside or an infringement of fundamental rights is partly a pond difference.”

    It may well be. If the idea is that this is such a little thing that it isn’t worth it, or that somehow the worker-drones will be offended by the shirt (but why? after all, as you’ve said, the rules aren’t their fault, so why should they care if you criticize them?), then I know there is a difference in attitude between the U.S. and the Continent.

    I think the attitude of pushing back where possible, even if it seems minor and (perhaps to some) petty, is a healthy tradition. There’s little we proles can do to change the stupidity, but what little pushing we can, we should do.

  18. I definitely got a chuckle. And I think the TSA as it stands today is a sad joke.

    As for wearing the shirts, it basically comes down to the being aware of and accepting the possible consequences of your actions.

    If you strongly believe in the cause and want to wear one of these shirts through airport security, you have every right to do so. As the policies aren’t created by the agents at the checkpoints, and the crowd just wants to get on the plane with minimal fuss, it seems more childish than courageous, but as they say, your mileage may vary.

    However, as you pretty much put a target on yourself and said “pick me! pick me!”, you shouldn’t be surprised when you receive more attention than the person next to you who isn’t wearing anything “provoking”.

    This is pretty much true of any situation where you are faced with someone who can either help or hinder you.

    It’s like the chicken said “You knew the job was dangerous when you took it”.

    1. evilpyrate just discovered a great scheme for avoiding too much scrutiny. Just dress sharp and have the rest of your cell (trying to) come with you on the trip wearing some “pick me” non-TSA-approved-opinion on their t-shirts.
      if they really respond so sheepishly to t-shirts, that is a nice security risk on its own.

    2. Actually you SHOULD be surprised, unfortunately that isn’t the reality we live in.

  19. Criticizing the TSA does not undermine the safety of airplanes. Hurting a screener’s feelings does not endanger our skies. Refusing to believe in the pseudoscience of binary explosives made in airplanes from the contents of your toothpaste tube does not constitute noncompliance with the magic-anti-terror-baggie rule.

    Personally, I’d much rather see that on a t-shirt.

  20. I’m not quite clear on where the “urban myth” idea of binary explosives comes from. If you’re talking about the exploding watermelon video, then yes there’s some question about whether that’s real. But binary explosives most definitely do exist, there is no question.

    And Eutychus, good to see you staying awake and contributing to class :)

    1. A clarification to my last — the reason it was said to be infeasible has nothing to do with security, and everything to do with trying to successfully perform a series of delicate operations with volatile chemicals on a vibrating, lurching platform without such niceties as proper cooling equipment, fume hoods and so on.

      I’ll post a link if I get a chance later today, unless someone beats me to it.

    2. The exploding watermelon with a match sized DIY explosive trick should scare nobody. Watermelons have no ability to withstand pressure or stress, you could get a similar exciting TV worthy explosion by giving it a good karate chop. For a fun experiment poke a hole in a watermelon with a long pencil, take a black cat firecracker(can you still get those?) and fuse it with a model rocket igniter and seal in tape, stick the pencil back in the hole or fill with mud or other tamper and tape the hole over with a square of duct tape. The black cat, safe to let blow in your hand will Explode! the watermelon and send midwestern terrorized Americans onto twitter and the blogs exclaiming the new terrorist threat de-jure.

      So real dangerous exploding stuff chem should be a required course in university along side calc and language for most any serious degree, then you wouldn’t be able to fool most of the people most of the time, at least about the ease of making explosives in the mile high club.

      1. Hey, don’t diss the midwest. (Full disclosure, I was born and raised in Iowa.) Remember it was Boston, Massachusetts that was terrorized by LEDs.


  21. “binary explosives most definitely do exist, there is no question”

    Oh sure. What there is question about (to say the least) from working chemists, is whether it would be feasible to assemble a binary explosive aboard a plane.

    Actually, as I recall the analysis, there isn’t really much question. The answer, to a high degree of certainty, was “no”.

  22. The points on the shirts are valid ones. But no one could possibly believe that wearing such a shirt to the airport is going to have any positive effect at all. Persuading TSA screeners that search policies are flawed is like persuading cops that criminal law ought to be redrafted; you’re telling the wrong people.

    Wearing this shirt to the airport seems to me to be equivalent to trolling.

    1. “Wearing this shirt to the airport seems to me to be equivalent to trolling”

      Bingo. You, sir/madam, win the prize.

  23. whats wrong with being provocative? some people try to change the world through discussion, witness, and information. i on the other hand want to fuck shit up in the name of a cause. trouble-makers have their place and always will.

  24. provoking a reaction from those prone to abuse authority is the best way of exposing them. I say go for it. if the shirts werent so expensive I’d wear one.

    but, on the other hand, having been a government employee over half my life and even run military checkpoints in dangerous places, I’d have to say most TSA folks have bigger things to worry about and would laugh at the shirts if they even noticed.

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