Passing through security at Atlanta Airport on Saturday, I was surprised to be called aside by the agent for a hand search of my luggage. The x-ray machine had apparently alerted him to the presence of what looked like (and I quote) ‘an electronic cigarette’ in my jacket. On examination, he established that the offending article was in fact my fountain pen. For a brief moment I feared that my trusted writing implement was about to be confiscated. After all, one would not have to be an expert trained in medieval Japanese swordplay to use such a pen as an in-flight weapon far more deadly than those banned nail clippers and sinister plastic bottles of mineral water. (As an aside, how is it that people with black belts in karate are allowed to fly at all, given their permanently lethal potential?) Yet I need not have worried: the agent returned the pen, apparently persuaded that I did not intend to smoke it, electronically or otherwise, on the flight.
On returning home, I engaged in a brief internet search both to establish what an electronic cigarette is and to ascertain why such might be banned by the TSA. Apparently, they are devices designed to supply the repentant smoker with all of the aesthetics of the wicked act itself without the nicotine or tar. They even emit a thin column of water vapour, harmless to those around but no doubt reassuring to the recovering addict. The internet indicates that the security agent was probably overreaching himself since these completely harmless devices are not yet forbidden by the TSA; but they are banned by most airlines. What is particularly striking to me is the reasoning for those interdicts which are in place: the rationale typically seems not to be based on some direct health risk or potential for terrorism but the fact that some undefined group of people find the idea of the use of e-cigarettes on planes to be concerning and confusing. As was made clear to me recently, passive smoking is bad for your physical health; now apparently passive pseudo-smoking is bad for your mental health too.
As one who is in varying degrees ‘concerned and confused’ by such things as cheese whizz, the music of the BeeGees, and that distasteful American habit of wearing brown leather shoes while sporting a grey suit, I wonder what the chances are that I might be able to have these (particularly the latter) banned from air flight? More seriously, I am struck once again at how the personal preferences of nebulous groups of people and the language of subjective emotion seem to be exerting an increasingly intrusive power over the politics of everyday life. Even the concept of airline security is now coming to be influenced by such. Perhaps this is merely material for wry reflections on contemporary life; maybe it is an ominous sign that the language and logic of public discourse are being permeated and indeed overwhelmed by those psychological and subjective notions of oppression to which there is no possibility of reasoned response and which are thus ultimately inimical to civilized debate and civic freedom. If electronic cigarettes are banned from planes because they might possibly leave some person somewhere feeling ‘concerned and confused,’ what are the long term implications for freedom to differ in public on matters of real importance?