Defiantly staring up at a burly TSA officer at Newark Liberty International Airport, I had a revelation about the delicate balance between security and liberty.
I took my 80-year-old mother on my first business trip to New York as president of UWC-USA. While she walked Central Park with a dear friend, I met UWC alumni for the first time. Packing our bags for the flight home, I told my mother I had a surprise for her. Whenever I’m in New York I make a deli pilgrimage to Zabar’s on the Upper Westside. We would sample our way through the cheeses and lox and bring some home to New Mexico.
It was a long walk to Zabar’s and I unfortunately overshot it by several blocks. I also hadn’t quite appreciated that my mother had walked Central Park that day.
We missed our cab pickup. We missed our train. We missed our flight. But we got our cream cheese and lox!
Helping my mother through the airport and check-in went well until we came to security. My Manchego went happily through. So, too, a smoky Gouda and a creamy Brie. But my pint of Zabar’s cream cheese? Determined to be “a liquid.”
It was just too much. First calmly, and then more forcefully, I challenged the TSA agent and then her supervisor. Is the TSA actually in the business of determining the viscosity of cheese? “What about Mascarpone?” I asked cuttingly. “At what point does a wheel of Brie as it softens become a public menace?” Appealing to the largely unsympathetic crowd around me, I continued my challenge. “This is the United States of America! We are a country committed to the rule of law! We don’t just arbitrarily discriminate between cheeses!”
After listening to my harangue and looking desperately through a large binder, the supervisor got up and went into a small office. Moments later I saw three airport police coming from the other direction.
I locked eyes with the youngest of the officers. He was smiling a hint of a smile and I smiled back. I continued to fight the good fight on behalf of my mother’s cheese. He was a master at de-escalation–listening, commiserating, answering patiently while his companions looked faintly annoyed. Finally, firmly, he called the question: “Ma’am, I understand your point. But this is the moment you really need to decide how important this cheese is to you.”
I surrendered my pint. But I knew I had lost something more than the cream cheese. We all did.