WASHINGTON — On the same July day that Donald Rumsfeld was patted down by airport security at Chicago's O'Hare airport, I underwent an upper-body pat-down at Reagan National in Washington.
I was posing spread-eagle in the full body scanner, in compliance with various mandates of the federal Transportation Security Administration, when something set off a female TSA agent, who began mumbling anxiously into her walkie-talkie.
I leaned forward, trying to hear her description of my offense. I was wearing no shoes and no heavy jewelry, and I'd thrown my belt into a bin along with my BlackBerry, my bulging key ring and an Amazon Kindle.
But something was clearly wrong. Finally, I heard her whisper: "Shiny shirt! Shiny shirt!"
I was, indeed, wearing a very shiny shirt. It was a silver Banana Republic sweater accented with shiny speckles. The agent signaled for me to exit the scanner and pulled me over for further inspection.
The high-tech scanner, bought by TSA at a cost of roughly $150,000, can detect hidden explosives, guns or knives tucked into underwear or ammunition packed into body orifices.
But it cannot, the agent told me, see clearly through a shiny shirt.
My upper-body pat-down was not overly intrusive, and I escaped without suffering the public humiliation of the 95-year-old cancer patient who made headlines when she was forced to remove her adult diaper at Northwest Florida Regional Airport.
But as a taxpayer and an occasional long-distance traveler, I departed Reagan National wondering how many billions of dollars have gone into producing a sophisticated high-tech airport security system that can be flummoxed by a shiny shirt. How do we know that al-Qaida operatives haven't discovered this chink in the TSA's armor?
Worse yet, why does the TSA never have to divulge proof that all the random searches, roaming gloved hands and intrusive questions are really protecting America?
Ten years after the 9/11 hijackers passed through major airports without raising questions, have we reached the point where we, as a society, can freely debate whether this system is working and whether all the annoying TSA regulations are worth keeping?
Let's talk hair products.
TSA regulations stipulate that a passenger's liquids, gels and foams must be limited to 3 ounces. I get that. But many specialty hair products made by major manufacturers simply do not come in 3-ounce sizes. Other hair products come in unusual trendy packaging, sometimes with shiny labels, that seems to befuddle TSA agents.
And so, with alarming regularity, hair products are seized. They are thrown into discard bins with half-filled water bottles and suspicious breast milk. The more expensive the product, I have observed, the higher the chances of seizure.
I first noticed this phenomenon in Kansas City, an unusually strict TSA center from my observation, when a full container of Bed Head Manipulator Sculpting Putty was removed from my bag. This product had cost me nearly $20 at a salon, and I had barely used it. I'll admit it had a suspicious appearance, cobalt blue with a thick, goopy texture, but no one was going to mistake it for a container of ammonium nitrate.
I had an easier time with the Garnier Fructis line, usually bought for less than $3 an item at the drugstore. I once made it through security in Greenville, S.C., with a mostly used 5-ounce jar of styling paste. The forgiving agent told me that although the jar violated regulations, he would make an exception because the container was nearly empty. Did they really think a full 5-ounce jar of styling putty posed a more ominous risk, as if the putty itself were explosive?
I've had so many hair products seized without apology or explanation that I've begun to suspect a broader conspiracy. I imagine a rogue cabal of TSA agents with a rented warehouse near Miami to which they ship all manner of seized high-end hair products for recycling on the black market. Where else could all this stuff be going? I simply refuse to believe that a budget-conscious TSA agent would leave a full container of Bed Head Manipulator in the garbage.
Of course, we say nothing; we do nothing. We watch them open our bags and take what they want. We disrobe on command. We stand in the full body scanner and wonder whether someone behind the wall is chuckling at our imperfections.
And we make adjustments — anything to speed us through the process. We wear loafers and elasticized pants. We repackage our precious products, packing pricey styling gel into inconspicuous Hefty sandwich bags.
And from this day forward, when traveling by air, we leave our shiny shirts at home