Madeleine Robins’s post this week on anger reminded me of an unpleasant but interesting experience involving anger I had a few years back while going through airport security.
I was in line behind a man who was talking nonstop on his cellphone as we moved through the process. His side of the conversations – which everyone within a twenty-foot radius could overhear – was generally obnoxious and abusive, though the last call might have included an effort to explain himself to a superior.
We got past the person who checks your ID and were taking off our shoes and loading our belongings into bins and still this man kept talking. He pushed his stuff up to the point where it was about to go through the machine, but he was still on the phone.
I will remind the reader that you must send your phone through the belongings machine; you cannot carry it with you through the one that scans you personally. However, no one from TSA appeared to remind the man of this fact.
I looked at the man behind me, who was feeling as frustrated as I was, and decided that since I was the person directly behind the obnoxious man, it was incumbent on me to take action.
So I pointed out, firmly, but politely, that he needed to put his things through the machine so we could all get through security and to our gates.
He said, “Shut up. I’m on the phone.”
And I got mad. First of all, he was clearly in the wrong and inconveniencing a lot of people. But also, people who demand that those around them give deference to them when they’re on the phone in a very public place push my last button.
So I said, not politely, “Then hang up the damn phone and take care of your business.” I may have said “fucking” phone, though my language is usually careful at the TSA checkpoint.
And he went off. He completely lost it. He unleashed a string of invective at me that included multiple uses of the “C” word and described in abusive and obscene detail just how horrific it would be to have sex with me. He went on and on and on.
At that point, I said nothing. The net result of that abuse was to make me dead calm. I just stared at him. Though I was thinking, “Oh, please, you little asshole, throw a punch or try to grab me. I would so love to throw you across the room.”
I was also thinking, “We’re at the security checkpoint. This is not a place to throw a hissy fit. There is nothing I can say or do that will help this situation, so I’m not going to say anything.” Because that’s the advantage of being calm: you think clearly and you act rationally.
He continued his abuse. A TSA agent motioned me to send my belongings through the machine and then waved me around the man, who was still screaming invective. I went through the scanner, collected my stuff, and looked back to see the man in conversation with TSA agents back on the other side, still screaming abuse.
No one from TSA asked me anything about any of the exchange. Except for the agents who dealt with the man directly, everyone was pretending this wasn’t happening. Including me.
About fifteen minutes later, the very nice man who had been in line behind me found me at my gate and reported that the abusive man had not been permitted through security. He wasn’t going to get on his plane. I was pleased to hear that he’d paid for his idiocy.
I think the nice person wanted to let me know I didn’t need to be afraid that the abuser would come after me. But in truth, I wasn’t. I was never scared during this encounter. I don’t know if another woman in my situation would have been frightened, but I never doubted that I could handle him if he tried to hurt me physically and his words were not a real threat.
And once his rant started, I wasn’t angry any more. I was ready to deal with whatever happened next.
But he was angry. He was out-of-control angry and he lost it in a place where you really can’t do that. He was a middle-class white guy, so I guess he thought he could do anything he wanted anywhere he wanted to.
Fortunately, justice was served in this case. Had he thrown similar abuse at me elsewhere – and he didn’t say anything I haven’t had yelled at me on the street, for certain kinds of unpleasant men are convinced that the fact that they don’t find you sexually alluring is the sort of thing you should know and be destroyed by – nothing would have happened to him.
But you can’t get that far out of control at airport security, even if you’re white and male and middle-class.