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

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.

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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.

View Comments (6)
  • If you have a problem, you should actually write TO the TSA and file a complaint.
    It does not surprise me when Muslim women wearing a headscarf go through these measures, but it is still disgusting. #ameriKKKa

  • I’m a white Christian guy of Irish descent, and I wore a little shamrock pin on my tie last Saint Paddy’s day. I got SSSS’d. That’s it, they clearly hate the Irish! They think I’m like Whitey Bulger. ;( #Bigotry #DarnedProtestants #Amerkkka

  • I’m sorry you had such idiots screening you, Maarya. I recently left my job as an officer for TSA because of the incompetence I dealt with on a daily basis from management and those they selected to promote. These are normally the ones that treat passengers like they treated you.
    I’m a Muslim. I always behaved more like the guy that tested your items, as these situations are just as uncomfortable for us as it can be for passengers. Making passengers laugh about dumb stuff was the only thing that got me by most days. So just know that what I’m about to tell you is in no way a defense of how the female officers acted, because nothing can. At the very least, you should have been offered a private screening to at least get rid of some of the discomfort.
    But just know that when I was still an officer, which was about two-three weeks before you put up this post, things had been changed for months to where quad S status is no longer randomly given. I can clearly see why you received the SSSS designation on your boarding pass: Istanbul. People with recent travel history that brings them to Turkey typically get selected for additional screening. In case you’re unaware of why, this is where those blasphemers that make up ISIS tell their hoodwinked followers to go in order to sneak into Syria and fight for them before they become ISIS janitors or parking meter maids instead.
    So yes, Chocolate Thunder was not lying when he said people of all races end up getting additional screening. And yes, I’ve most definitely done this procedure on white males, even a few in the US military. I won’t go into what else can account for being selected, as flight patterns are only a part of the equation, but just know that this is likely a significant part of why you, and many others, are chosen on a continuous basis. When someone exasperatingly says this happens to them all the time and they don’t know why, asking them if they’ve been to Turkey recently usually results in a light bulb turning on in their head as they say “yea…ohhhhhhhhhhhh…”
    I just had to respond here to share this information. I can’t speak for every single airport, but about every officer at the checkpoint, and the mystery airport I worked at in general, avoided bigoted comments about Muslims. And that’s not even because they were aware of my faith, as my undisclosed race is not one generally associated with Islam in mainstream understanding. This typically makes people think they can say whatever they want around me about Muslims, until I drop the “so this is what you think about me? Because I am a Muslim” to their disbelief. We were taught to respond to (typically) white, entitled passengers irate about being screened, and end up yelling at the officers “do I look like a terrorist to you??” by saying “I don’t know, sir/ma’am, I actually have no idea what a terrorist looks like. I just have a job to do.”
    Many of the ones I know adhere to this line of thinking. Of course, like in any organization, there are racists, bigots, and other types of morons that work there. Unfortunately, the ones at TSA are typically good at kissing ass and, consequently are the first chosen to be promoted. And these are the types that are inept at explaining why someone is going through additional screening, instead opting to stay silent or cause more grief. Communication has never been TSA’s strongest suit, using security theater as the blunt reasoning for unnecessary secrecy. In reality, they’re most likely just too ignorant of why they themselves are performing the screening procedures in different situations and it being a “secret” likely makes them feel better about themselves.
    I hope this helps you understand that it’s definitely not because you are Muslim. If I had figured out that this was why people are given SSSS, I would have quit way before I got tired of the morons in upper management. Just know that there are good officers out there, like TSO Chocolate Thunder, and not everyone thinks they are part of some super counter terrorism police unit. If you encounter these overzealous types all the time, it’s likely because they were the only ones standing around not doing anything at the time and they are annoyed that they have to actually do some work.
    Yea this response went way too long.

  • I am a caucasian woman, blonde, blue eyes, US citizen, 68 years old, a grandmother. I have a hip replacement which means I must go through the body scanner every time I travel, even though I am a Know Traveler with Global Entry and TSA precheck. I have had TSA pre check for years. It was actually free and given to flyers at the program’s inception. I make many trips each year and have elite status with American Airlines (including being a million miler). Nonetheless, I have gotten the SSSS screening twice in the past year. Additionally, I have also had last-minute, secondary screening at the gate while passengers and colleagues were boarding the plane, passing by me as my luggage was searched and I was swabbed and patted down. I do not know the selection criteria, the randomness, the reasons for being picked. I am clearly not Muslim. Just a frequent traveler subject to all the things every other traveler might experience.
    While I was not delighted with the Quad S screening, it is a proactive measure that might possibly deter some violence from occurring. We live in an unsafe world.

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