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The security of humorlessness

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Monday, Oct 2, 2006

I just got back from a brief vacation in Southern California. On the flight back we had a layover in Houston, during which I heard an announcement that warned that anyone making jokes about security issues could end up facing imprisonment. At first I thought this was a bit draconian and totalitarian, the TSA was going to dictate my sense of humor to me while I was in the deadness of airport space. But I also thought there was probably no need to be making jokes about security because there’s probably no chance that they would be funny. And anyone making such jokes may very well not be joking. It seems as though many dangerous situations, as they begin to unfold, seem like a joke. A homeless person approaches you, makes a request that slowly becomes a demand, and possibly you think, What are you, joking? A teenager tells you to hand over your iPod as you are walking by; it might even seem like a joke as he’s coming at you. One of my flights out to Los Angeles had to make an emergency landing (which sounds much more dramatic than it wa; it was just an unscheduled stop at the Newark, New Jersey airport) because the passenger across the aisle—a uniformed crew member from the plane’s previous trip—was having trouble breathing and seemed like he was about to die. My thought was initally that it was all some kind of joke, some kind of test, not really happening, not really spontaneous and unintentional. It may be that life is so rationalized and bureaucratized that we must regard anything spontaneous and unintentional as some kind of joke. It starts to become clear, when you travel down that path of reasoning, why you would get on the airport intercom and forbid joking around.


But then, if you were joking, and it didn’t just seem as though you were joking, then theoretically you aren’t serious about what you say, by definition, and you are announcing your harmlessness. What sort of terrorist would joke about his plan in the airport? If it can be identified as a joke, then the harmlessness of the joker is known, and the punishment is just spite for trying to puncture the illusion of protection the TSA veils the airport in. We have all seen the reports of how easy it is to defy the rules at the screening checkpoints and smuggle in contraband fluids or pass through the metal detector without removing our shoes or various other prototerroristic acts. What the TSA relies on is a humorless attitude about security, which plays out in every traveler monitoring every other traveler, studying them for signs of suspiciousness. Catching them joking about bombing a plane is not really the point, of course; sending the message that mutual suspicion and snitching over trivialities is encouraged is what is about. TSA officials perhaps hope this climate can serve a deterrent function. It’s hard to imagine who would be incompetent enough however, to be deterred, by citizens on patrol.


Also, isn’t it terroristic to show disaster films like Poseidon as the in-flight entertainment? Don’t they think passengers can make the simple analogy of air travel with boat travel? And I would like to send a special shoutout to the sadist next to me on the flight from Newark to Los Angeles. United 93 was a great choice for your portable DVD player. After the medical emergency landing and the asphixiated crewmember I had just witnessed, it really was the coup de grace. Thanks for sharing that experience with me.

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