Thank those in thankless jobs

Lord willing, I will never complain about the TSA again.

I’m sure you have your own airport security story.  Here’s one of mine.  I was returning home from who knows where; I’ve long forgotten.  I had my toiletries in little regulation-sized plastic bottles in a regulation-sized Ziploc bag, all of which had passed muster on the outbound flight.  This time, however, the TSA agent said that because the bottles weren’t labeled, he would have to confiscate them.  Puzzled, I asked why.  Somewhat patronizingly, he replied, “If it isn’t labeled, how do I know what’s in there?”

I was stunned for a moment by the absurdity of the statement.  So, if I were a terrorist, I thought silently, I could bring explosives onto the plane as long as I put them in a bottle labeled “shampoo,” right?  I started to offer a rebuttal, but quickly realized that actually using the words “If I were a terrorist” would not be to my advantage.  I surrendered my shampoo, and that was that.

Since then, I’ve realized that the fundamental problem is less a matter of absurd policies and more a matter of living in an absurd world, one in which people hatch plots to blow up airplanes in the first place.  Our policies and procedures can make us somewhat safer, but can’t protect us entirely; moments of absurdity are apt to result from trying to control the uncontrollable.

Last Friday, I waited to board a flight to Phoenix.  As it turned out, the worship pastor from our church and his wife were on the same flight.  As we stood in line together, he asked if I had heard the news: there had been a shooting that morning at Los Angeles International Airport.  A young man, later characterized as a suicidal loner, had marched into the terminal with a high-powered rifle to stalk TSA agents.

Gerardo Hernandez was on duty, checking IDs.  The gunman shot him and proceeded up the escalator; when he noticed that Hernandez was still moving, he returned and shot him again.

Throughout the weekend, television news programs repeated over and over the same herky-jerky footage of people fleeing in terror.  It reminded me of the obsessive replaying of the destruction of the World Trade Center after 9/11–the event that led to the creation of the TSA, the Transportation Security Administration.

Hernandez was just doing his job: an often thankless job trying in some small way to protect hurried and harried passengers in an absurd post-9/11 world.  I’m sure that neither he nor his family expected that he would go to work that day to give his life in the line of duty.

I both believe and teach that Jesus has called his followers to be peacemakers, to be active participants in God’s ministry of bringing peace and wholeness to a broken world.  Frankly, I don’t know what to do about terrorism, or to prevent such shootings from happening again.  It is not humanly possible to keep ourselves 100% safe from random acts of violence.  Moreover, there is a trade-off between control and freedom, and we are not likely as a people to ever agree on the proper balance of the two.

But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing I can do as a peacemaker.  Yesterday, I prepared to board my flight home.  As I went through security, I made it a point to smile at each TSA agent I encountered and say thank you.  Before I left the screening area, I approached two agents sitting behind a desk.  One recoiled ever so slightly, sizing me up as a potential threat.  But I took her hand and said, “I just want to thank you for the job you do.  I’m sure you don’t hear that much.”  She relaxed and returned the smile.

I hope it was a moment of peace.