Maarya Rabbani

This Is What It’s Like to Be On TSA’s Dreaded SSSS List

It had to be me. Of course I was randomly selected. I mean, it’s not like I’m a brown, Muslim girl wearing a headscarf or have a second nationality which happens to be Afghan (insert sarcasm here.)
Please don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’m not used to this — trust me, I’ve been searched many times before, but none like the Secondary Security Screening Selection, or SSSS, at the John F. Kennedy Airport on Fri., June 17, 2016.
After initially being referred to another counter and having to wait a long and embarrassing 15 minutes — I say embarrassing because I was clearly holding up the line, frustrating others behind me, evident by their non verbal communication signs of dragon breath-y sighs and scoffs through the fibers of my headscarf — two women marked my boarding pass profusely with “S”s.
I then proceeded to the back of a long line awaiting the security check. As soon as it was my turn, the woman scanned my boarding pass and it immediately triggered a loud alarming sound accompanied by red flashing lights.
The woman and I exchanged puzzled looks before she took my passport and asked me to follow her.

We walked to every single airport security guard, the woman constantly referring to me as ‘selected.’

“What do we have here?” an overweight, middle-aged white man asked.
“Just another selected,” replied the woman.
A “selected” — What the hell was that?
“Why was I selected?” I asked.
“The airline chose you,” she replied bluntly.
Well, great. I had to be the chosen one… and after waiting an agonizing 10 minutes, I was directed to the first line, which is when the fun began.
A curvy black woman directed me to the conveyor belt in which I was asked to take out my laptop and iPad. I complied. After she had left, I was grimly welcomed by another woman, older, stricter looking, and White.
I went though three x-ray machines; the first was the normal kind, thin-framed, metal detector type. The second and third were the circular, glass cage, sci-fi movie looking type — and I bet you any money it did more than just check for metal.

After putting my “hands up high where you can see ’em,” I got through with the first wave of humiliation.

Please keep in mind that people were walking past me in the other lanes, just staring at me with their judgmental and curious eyes, probably wondering what I’d done to get to where I was. I looked back at them with the same questions in mind.
Reflecting back at this moment, I am almost 100 percent certain that I will get some sort of cancer before the age of 30, solely based on the fact that I have to constantly go through three times the amount of x-rays than normal passengers.
By this stage, I had made it to the swab tests. You know, just to check whether I had explosives on me — not like the x-ray machines would’ve picked that up.
To be honest, though, there is something mildly therapeutic and kinky about getting swabbed everywhere. I mean you have to take your shoes and socks off, and get to feel this bizarre foreign object rub all over you, between your toes too.

I jokingly said to the old White woman that if she was looking for explosives between my toes, she was out of luck.

The only thing riveting to appear on her screen would be chemical build up of cold and crisp sweat, mixed with slight Athlete’s Foot — courtesy of my dad’s genetics and old grey Nikes.
By now, I’ve sort of gone through half of the arduous procedure of getting screened. The next stage is to get a brisk and rough pat down. This was my least favorite, as it made me feel vulnerable and exposed.
Her brisk organ penetrating, deep-tissue massage got me feeling sick. By this point, not only was I being touched in front of everyone — but I also felt extremely uncomfortable and self-conscious about my body. They just do it to cop a feel.
To further add to the discomfort, she demanded to see the patch of skin under my Casio watch. She examined my wrist for literally three minutes. I honestly didn’t think that it would be that interesting of an inspection — my wrist of all places. The White lady left me standing there while she went to go do something with my passport — maybe to get further checked and validated.
It was after she’d left that I had the refreshing welcome of another security guard. This time a younger Black man. He’d checked my belongings, literally every single crack and crevice.

I mean he unzipped the section of my bag that has the small pocket where girls usually put their pads or something in — and then literally checked the folds in my pads to see if anything was in there! God, that was so humiliating!

He checked my laptop and iPad, too, turned it on and inspected my display screen and noted things like the wallpaper I had chosen — also making note that my toolbar was set to the left of my screen, horizontal.
After looking through it all, he said, “Okay May-row, here ya go. And if you see a number on your phone saved under ‘Chocolate Thunder’ just know it was me.” I laughed at this genuinely –because after all the fuss, I finally met someone that could at least lighten up the atmosphere.
To his light-heartedness, I asked him how many Muslims they check in a day. He never was able to answer because his female co-worker from line 2 interrupted by answering, “All types of people get searched.”
So then I rephrased my question, “How many people of color do you check in a day?” She said, “Ma’am all sorts of people get checked here. Last week we had an African diplomat go through SSSS.”
“So you don’t get White folk come though here at all?” A light-skinned Black male co-worker smiled and said “Hey, you’re practically White.” I rolled my eyes and asked about my passport.
The White lady appeared after a few minutes with my passport, but didn’t hand it to me right away.
“Your bag’s itinerary?” she asked.
“You want a list of things I packed in my bag? Funny!”
“Your itinerary?” I handed her a print out of my booking.
“You got anything else?” she asked.
What else was she expecting? I said no.
“Alright, we’ll probably check you once you reach your destination. Free to go.” With that, she handed me my passport and I left promptly to gate number 3, as if nothing had ever happened.

Dear TSA,
My story is not uncommon or rare – it is shared by hundreds and thousands of my brown or Muslim brothers and sisters. Clearly, some of your agents are unhappy with their lives and incredibly disgruntled. I feel for them (NOT!)
Actually, I found some of them to be assholes, which clearly does not excuse their actions. In my experience, I was incredibly surprised by the lack of minimal intelligence in them – they were the type of people that would blame everyone rather than being reflective enough to realize that the problem lies with them and their system.
I have never experienced a more traumatic and invasive travel event.
This isn’t freedom. I don’t feel safer. This is fear.