Second Thought: Wednesday, September 3, 2003
Heavy Metal Mystery

Where do all the confiscated pocketknives go?


My new Eddie Bauer cuticle scissors became a statistic a few weeks ago. Like 7.5 million other items seized by airport security guards in the last 18 months, they became hostages to the cause of national security.

Did you read that last sentence? 7.5 million items. Folks, that’s a lot of nail files, letter openers, and knitting needles sacrificed on the altar of terrorism and packing screwups.

I could tell you that when the cuticle scissors bit the dust on that recent trip to Phoenix, I had no hard feelings. But I’d be lying. For one thing, as a Hispanic, I have two years of anecdotal evidence to suggest that brown people’s nail care kits and cigarette lighters are getting a lot more attention than white and black people’s. Since Sept. 11, I have not taken a single trip without having my bag chosen in the “random” searches. Meanwhile, my fair-skinned, green-eyed husband usually sails through. See, that shows how innocent I was: If I’d been intending to threaten someone — it would have had to be a very small, defenseless someone — I’d have put the scissors in the bag my husband was carrying.

For another thing, I have very little confidence these days that the security folks are actually likely to catch the important stuff. The same security guy who found my cuticle scissors nestled innocently in the new Eddie Bauer nail-care set had also thoroughly rooted through every cranny of my makeup bag before realizing he couldn’t get it closed again (“I’ll let you do that,” he graciously said.) But, as I discovered later, he had totally missed my husband’s Leatherman multi-tool in another pocket of the same bag. Now, last time I looked, the knife blades, hole punch, and itty-bitty saw blade of a Leatherman were a lot more lethal than my nail scissors.

My options were to give up the scissors or to get out of line, go back to the ticket counter, and check the backpack that the nail set was in, then go back through security. Could I come to the head of the line then? No, of course not. I knew that the process would take an hour I didn’t have. Sacrifices had to be made.

So there I was, cursing the suspected racism and undoubted inefficiency of the airport security system yet again and my own packing faux pas, when the most sinister aspect of the whole incident dawned on me: Who’s getting the loot?

The Aug. 28 story by the Associated Press said that, of the more than 7.5 million items surrendered to or seized by airport security since February 2002, the majority have been relatively harmless items, like cuticle scissors, nail files, pocketknives, and cigarette lighters (although every now and then you get a weed-whacker or a chain saw). Like me, most offenders had no evil intent; most of us were just trying to cram the most stuff possible into each bag (although you have to wonder about the chain saw).

But what became of all these sharp objects? According to the AP, it is up to each airport to decide what happens to the seized items. Get this: Many airports in California auction their seized items on eBay. This is a creative idea — at least all these items don’t go to waste. I can see it now — distraught people bidding desperately to get back their initialed pocketknives, Disneyworld letter openers, and Dad’s lighter from WW2.

Sadly, a call to the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport revealed that items confiscated there go “in the trashcan.” And the spokesperson at Love Field had no clue about the fate of all their found fingernail files.

Perhaps I am not hip enough to have heard, but as far as I know there are no underground sales of confiscated items going on at our local airports. If there’s not, there should be. How easy would it be for an enterprising janitor to select the best items from the trash and sell them to arriving passengers, who have just surrendered similar items on the other end of their flight? Better yet, make this an official airport business. Think of all the people who had to surrender their Swiss Army knives and are now in a strange city with no foldout spoon or can opener. What are they supposed to do if they somehow end up stranded in the wilderness with an unopened can of soup? There is money to be made here. Too many people are having their nail hygiene compromised — think of the potential lawsuits here, people. Not to mention the heartbreak of hangnails. This enterprise would be good for the country as a whole. As I learned on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, no one wants to look at unkempt nails.

I am surprised that in today’s flailing economy it seems that only California has figured out that there is money to be made here. Perhaps the airports could use profits from such a venture to purchase some kind of disposable socks, so that when I am forced to take off my sandals before going through the metal detector, I can do so without fear of contracting some kind of foot fungus. To the obviously brilliant person who decides to sell these seized items, I don’t even ask for a share of the profits. All I ask for is a pair of cuticle scissors. Mine are in the trashcan.

Katherine Ortega Courtney is a graduate student in psychology at Texas Christian University.

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