I went through airport security at Boston Logan last week. I usually don’t run into a ton of problems when I go through security – I take my shoes off, smuggle my toothpaste through, and keep my head down.

The special part about this particular trip occurred after I had already gone through the millimeter wave detector. As I was exiting the TSA agent (a dude) stops me and says, “Before you keep going, I need to read your shirt.” 

Of course, I dutifully stopped and let him stare at my chest for 20 seconds.  I was wearing this t-shirt, which I love because it’s from 826 Valencia in San Francisco (aka the Pirate Store). It didn’t even occur to me to object until I went to put on my belt and realized that the exchange was weird. On the scale of ridiculous things that the TSA has done, t-shirt reading is pretty low. But I was struck by how different my thoughts about the interaction were from what the TSA agent was thinking.

The TSA agent probably thought he was being clever/appreciative/nice when he complimented me by paying attention to my clothing. I’m sure it gets pretty boring just waving people through security all day, so any chance to make it more interesting is nice. I’m (relatively) sure he didn’t mean to put me in a situation where I felt like I had to stop and let him ogle me for a few seconds. However, intent isn’t magic.

Part of the problem with power is that people forget that they have it. Abuses of power happen ALL THE TIME, because it’s easy forget that people aren’t just being accommodating but that they actually have to do what you say. Could I have said no to the TSA agent and kept walking past him? Probably. Do I think I would have been punished for it? Probably not – I look pretty harmless, so it might have gone okay. But it didn’t even occur to me till after that ignoring him was an option.

I think the routine nature of TSA screening contributes to this problem – what can seem like an idle joke or comment to pass the time of a monotonous job can be coercive or inappropriate when thought of from the perspective of the passenger. I don’t want to say that all TSA agents should remain dour and never say anything other than “shoes off, laptops out.” But appreciating that the people you are interacting with are in a position where they may feel uncomfortable or even be unable to say “no” is important. Consent matters.