I Pocket Knife: A Tale of Petty Tyranny and the TSA

By the time you read this, I’m probably little more than a glob of metal, like so many millions of my brothers and sisters. And I did nothing wrong. For a while, I blamed my owner—didn’t he know that the TSA wouldn’t let him take me on an airplane? But, of course he did. In fact, his diligence in trying to protect me is partly responsible for the mental slip that flipped me into the box with all the other innocents, victimized by the bureaucratic absurdity of US airport security rules. Yet, avoiding that slip would have meant keeping me in a dark drawer, and, for a pocket knife, that is a life not lived.

I know this because my owner had held on to me for 27 years. I know exactly when I was born, because I was a loving gift from his girlfriend and future wife. And I was practical, which made the thoughts behind her gift all the more special to my owner. And it gave me purpose. We’ve been through a lot: I have scraped ice from the nozzles of frozen hose couplings used to make snow at a ski area in subzero weather.  I have stripped electrical wire forty feet in the air. I have cut scores of feet of duck tape for various types of repairs. I’ve opened hundreds of presents and gifts under Christmas trees and at birthday parties. I opened the box to my owner’s first published novel. Most recently, I opened the boxes of local authors at a spring festival, releasing fresh ideas and creative genius onto an unsuspecting public. I reveled in the joy and satisfaction I brought to my owner, his children, and the scores of people I helped, even in the smallest ways, through their everyday lives.

But there are some things that my owner and I never did. We never cut a person or animal. I was never opened out of anger. I was never used to threaten, cajole or intimidate. My owner simply would not have done that. I should know since, until that sad day in April, I was his companion for more than half of his life.

I have every reason to be livid at my owner. How could he let this happen?

One look on his face when the TSA agent pulled me from his backpack was enough for me to comprehend the emotional pain his oversight caused. My anger melted with his hopes and dreams. Gone was the surety of knowing I would be there to help him with tasks simple and big. Gone was the warm comfort of being there at holidays and birthdays. Gone was the plan that I would be passed down to his son at the right time. And, most importantly, gone was a cherished symbol of affection that he had so carefully protected until that fateful error at the airport.

And the TSA security guard knew, too: Seeing my owner’s expression, he asked him twice if he wanted to go back and mail it home. And my heart sank along with his dispirited voice as my owner uttered the inevitable “no.” He had already waited in line too long, and if he went back through security he would miss his plane. Cancelling meetings and paying hundreds of dollars in rebooking fees was simply too much, even with our long attachment and personal bond.

No, I am not angry at my owner. I am not even angry at the TSA employee. I am angry at the TSA. Despite all the technology available to them and other law enforcement agencies, they couldn’t figure out that a middle-aged man in a stable marriage, with no criminal record, with two decades of steady professional employment, two well-adjusted teenage kids, and more than 500,000 frequent flier miles under his belt was not a threat to himself or the passengers on that plane. In fact, to the TSA, my owner was indistinguishable from the Jihadists that murdered thousands of innocents more than a decade ago.  He was invisible, not even a cog in the wheel. He was a nonperson, without rights or claims to civil liberties. In that airport, he lived a life contingent on the good graces of government and its bureaucratic rules, not his record or good deeds or contributions to society.

Perhaps the only thing worse than the absurdity of my confiscation is the fact the TSA consciously and self-righteously tramples on the very civil liberties that this nation was founded to protect. The consequence of these petty tyrannies is not just my demise, but a break in the very bonds that keep humans and families together. They sap the willpower and personal strength of a civil society founded to stand up against larger tyrannies. And they cede the power of life, freedom, and mobility to the rule followers and the small minds that can’t distinguish between real and imagined threats to persons and property. I deserve better. My owner deserves better. Americans deserve better. But it’s too late for me.

Samuel R. Staley is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Managing Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center in the College of Social Sciences at Florida State University. He is a contributing author to the Independent books, Property Rights: Eminent Domain and Regulatory Takings Re-Examined and Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis.
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