TSA Has Objected to Lightsabers Before

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After my post about the TSA's concern over Peter Mayhew's simulated fictional weaponry ("TSA Questions Chewbacca's Lightsaber," June 10), I heard from Patrick Smith, a professional pilot and author of (among other things) the long-running column Ask the Pilot at Salon.com (it's now on his website). He noted that this is not the first time TSA agents have defended the traveling public from a lightsaber, according to a reader comment he mentioned in a 2011 post (and also here):

One day, flying from Dallas to Jacksonville, Fla., [Stacey] Goldring and her toddler son were refused passage through the TSA checkpoint because the boy was carrying … get ready now … his Star Wars lightsaber. A lightsaber, if you’re not familiar, is a flashlight with a plastic cone attached—or, perhaps more to the point, a toy in the shape of a make-believe weapon from a galaxy, and a line of reasoning, far, far away.

“I believe it was green,” says Goldring, “indicating my son’s future Jedi path. We were told by the TSA professionals that the saber, which technically is something that does not exist, was a weapon. We were escorted out of security and sent to the ticket counter, where I had to fill out paperwork in order to check the lightsaber in as baggage.”

This lightsaber incident is significantly dumber than the recent one (which doesn't make that one non-dumb), because: (1) at least Mayhew's lightsaber cane was big enough to possibly injure someone with (if he were to get up out of his wheelchair to swing it), and (2) this was not just a simulated fictional weapon, it was a toy simulated fictional weapon; and (3) they actually sent these people back to check in the "lightsaber." I am guessing that in doing the latter, they consulted the TSA's Prohibited Items List, which does in fact list "sabers" as items that may not be carried on but are OK in checked baggage. That would be just the kind of genius-level work we've come to expect from this group.

To be fair, if you actually type "lightsaber" into the "Can I Bring My….?" box also found on that page, you will get this:

So at least one person somewhere in that organization is not entirely detached from reality, although for all we know this was added due to negative publicity after one of the lightsaber incidents, not because they thought of it first. And of course the goons in the earlier incident did not even apply the lightsaber policy correctly, so something is wrong in addition to the fact that they don't know "lightsaber" is one word and "Force" is capitalized. You'd think one of their nerdling agents would have pointed this out by now.

Speaking of extreme dorkitude, it is not actually clear what "Jedi path" is indicated by a green lightsaber (although I love that quote). According to "The Jedi Path," a recent book of some kind, this is the color of the "Jedi Consular," who prefers to use the Force rather than alternative means of dispute resolution such as cutting somebody in half. So make of that what you will.

As an aside, "Can I Bring My….?" may need to be updated, because it just says "ITEM NOT FOUND" in response to a variety of queries, like "artificial limb," "wife," "lawyer," "prostitute," "rocket boots," "henchmen," "copy of the Constitution," and maybe most surprisingly, "terrorist." Maybe the NSA is looking at that entry right now (hi, guys), but still, no canned response to "Can I bring my terrorist"? Disappointing.

If you ask whether you can bring your "fork," it will first ask you whether you mean "fork" or "tuning fork." Tuning forks are a "yes," although they warn you about size restrictions on musical instruments. So if you have a tuning fork as big as a cello or whatever they're worried about, please ship it. Table forks are also said to be ok, although if that is the policy it's one step above what Patrick Smith dealt with when his fork was taken away at a security checkpoint:

“No, no, no, no,” said the guard. “You cannot take this.”

Really? Let’s ignore for a moment the fact that even the most hell-bent of terrorists isn’t going to get very far with a hand-held weapon of any kind, let alone something as goofy as a fork…. And [e]very day, hundreds of thousands of stainless steel forks, not to mention knives, are handed out to passengers in the forward cabins of airplanes. (And why not? The hijacking paradigm exploited on Sept. 11 no longer exists.) Yet on-duty pilots are not allowed to carry them through the checkpoint?

“No, no, no, no.”

That's right—they took away a fork, which (A) is not going to help you get through a cockpit door, and (B) if it were useful, could just be taken away from any first-class passenger (if you weren't one already, in which case they would give you a fork). Best of all, they took it away from the pilot. Who, if he wanted to, would kill you with the plane, not one at a time with a fork.

That (the fork thing, not wanting to kill you) may be one of the topics covered in Smith's new book, Cockpit Confidential. His Salon columns were always good (including many sensible comments on security nonsense), so the book is probably quite good as well.

According to the TSA's website, you can even bring it with you on the plane. Well, "book" in general. Maybe not that one.