Truth be told, I don’t always find it easy to follow all of life’s little rules. (No need to comment; I’m well aware of the irony of such a statement coming from a law student.)
But you know what I mean: life is full of lots of rules, big and small, and many of them are clearly in place for a reason. Usually, I have no problem with following the ones that make sense. There are some rules, however, that seem to exist for no other purpose but to fluster and frustrate the humble masses (of which I am certainly a card-carrying member).
If you’re looking for someplace where such inane rules simply flourish, try your local airport.
Don’t get me wrong: I understand that every airport rule has a nominal reason for its existence. Either someone thought that there was a problem or someone was trying to prevent one, and these problems and these threats are no doubt real. But the finer distinctions can be mystifying!
We are permitted to carry on any bag whose total dimensions sum up to 54 inches, but not 56 inches. We can use our “approved electronic devices” while the plane is flying, but not while it’s on the ground. And we can bring the same liquid, gel, or aerosol onboard in two containers of 1.7 ounces each but not in one container that’s over 3.4.
It’s this last little rule that caught my attention as I traveled down to Washington, D.C. to visit a few friends over the long weekend. I had brought with me a small housewarming gift for my hostess: a lovely-looking jar of honey. I was sure she would appreciate its potential interaction with some multi-grain toast or perhaps a nice biscuit.
However, this was not to be.
Unfortunately, to my friendly neighborhood TSA worker, that apparently harmless jar of honey was in fact none other than a deadly threat to our collective airborne security: that’s right, a gel.
You can imagine my chagrin when my carry-on bag was pulled aside for special screening at the security checkpoint. I was sure they would go for my cologne. They surprised me by overlooking the fragrance and going for the food instead.
I can’t say that I blame them; this was some very presentable honey: hand-labeled, with a little bow on top, carefully tucked inside a Ziploc bag for safekeeping and giving off a soft, syrupy, golden glow of goodness.
Turns out looks won’t get you everywhere in this world.
Sensing danger, I put all of my best arguments to use:
The substantive distinction: “No, you see, ma’am, it’s not a gel, it’s a condiment.”
The offer: “Would you like to see me eat some? Would you like to eat some?”
The innocent shrug: “Really, ma’am, the worst I could do with it is bribe the stewardess…”
Then, pushing my luck, I moved on to the finer points of liquid volume: “If I separated this honey into two containers of equal size, would that be acceptable? Yes? Can we think about that for a moment? Are we perhaps making strange and unnecessary distinctions here? Perhaps we should ask ourselves: Does size really matter?”
This is where I think I may have lost her.
I would like to say that my reasonable arguments prevailed. I would like to say that my assigned TSA agent was overcome by the combined joy of the long weekend and golden honey and did not throw this very thoughtful gift into the trash before my very eyes. I would like to say that the hordes of passengers in line behind me broke into spontaneous applause after witnessing the success of my eloquent principled stand.
However, TSA had other plans, and that happy little jar of honey met a grisly end at the bottom of a plastic-lined trash barrel. I’ll spare you the more gruesome details.
Now, there are several obvious responses to this story, and because they’re obvious, I’ve already thought of them: Yes, I could have checked my luggage if I had wished to avoid this. Yes, if I had really wanted to, I could have gone back through security, located a post office, and shipped the package to my friend in D.C. Yes, I do understand that the restriction has been in place for several years and no, I do not consider myself (especially) entitled to an exception.
But none of those are the point I’d like to make.
The point I’d actually like to make is this: let us be thankful for the people who follow the rules like it’s their job—particularly when it is their job.
Although my case was an innocent one, and although I didn’t make it too easy for her, this TSA agent stuck to her guns, performed her duty, and upheld the rule. And no matter what I think of this rule’s application in my particular case, consistent application of that rule over countless passengers works to make the skies a friendlier, safer place.
Those are skies we all have to share. So for that kind of security, a little honey is a price I’m willing to pay.
We all like to imagine that we are the exception. We acknowledge that the rules are there for a reason, but not for us. Perhaps most often, we believe that because we do not have the nasty intentions that the rule is designed to thwart, it should not apply to our particular case. In the end, though, the world doesn’t work that way… and it’s a good thing, too.
My recent run-in with the TSA is a reminder of this important fact: when we run up against someone attempting to enforce one of life’s little rules, that person is not judging our intentions or questioning our relative worth.
He or she merely represents the simple truth that a rule full of exceptions is like a bucket full of holes: it might lighten the load temporarily, but in the long run it won’t hold water.