When the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) joined Instagram two weeks ago, the move prompted bemused and occasionally earnest reactions from the publications tasked with paying attention to these kinds of things. Consider, illustratively, the Washington Post, which weighed in from two different blogs: Gridlock, the transportation blog, where they briefly noted the “hashtag-happy” TSA account, and Alexandra Petri’s ComPost blog, which addressed the topic with that peculiar brand of Beltway proto-humor (” … things could be worse. They could be confiscating salads.”) But as the account on the image sharing site grows — it now stands at 11 images and 42,665 followers — the function of the TSA’s Instagram within the governmental public relations rubric is becoming more clear, and it’s profoundly strange.
Managed by the TSA’s “blog team” (yes, the TSA has a blog), the purpose of the account is to capture images of confiscated contraband, though if the images published to date are any indication, this means handguns and knives, with assorted other military or police-style weapons thrown in. Among the 11 images currently shown, we count six guns, six knives, a stun gun disguised as a cigarette box, an inert military grenade, and a mess of fireworks.
Nearly all the weapons are shown against some background revealing the institutional context and function of the seizures: rulers, TSA paperwork, and so on offer the penumbra of bureaucratic capture. The threat has been assessed, mitigated, Instagrammed. The TSA’s blog — to which each Instagram caption links — runs a “Week in Review” feature that lists the number of handguns seized, divided into which weapons were loaded and which weren’t. Sometimes the firearms don’t fit into that narrow rubric, as was the case last week with one “starter gun,” loaded with blanks. The (nameless) author noted:
Sure it shoots blanks, but it looks like the real deal, makes a loud bang, and could cause a lot of angst if somebody pulled it out in the cabin of an aircraft, which TSA cannot permit.
The TSA’s project is not to rid the world of guns, no — if anything, guns are everywhere, with American gun culture itself targeted by the pornographic feed offered by the TSA — but rather to rid the traveler of “angst.” It’s a curious word to use, perfectly encapsulating the insanity of the TSA’s mission, an organization dedicated to eradicating not weapons or even violence but human anxiety itself.
And back on the Instagram account, caption language and hashtags have a lot to do with the public image the TSA is projecting. It’s a curious trivialization of violence and weapons, rendering them banal or childish, which serves the paradoxical purpose of convincing us that the threat is omnipresent, but that we shouldn’t fear weapons themselves. The cartoonish use of hashtags, which was too much even for the Washington Post‘s blogger, carries all the noxious and insidious humorlessness that comes whenever power tries to be cute:
The perfect #knife to bring to a#gunfight was discovered in a carry-on bag at #Cleveland #Hopkins #airport
This a great weapon for you to have, citizen, the TSA’s stupid joke goes, but not here at The Airport, where a multibillion dollar dragnet exists to enact this obscene ritual where we “neutralize” the threat posed by the forgetful among our nation of weapons gluttons. We are meant to fear not the absence of guns or knives or stun guns, but the absence of the state to situate/neutralize for us the role of weapons in the imaginary of hostile vs. “friendly” violence.
How many of those 27 loaded guns pulled from the millions of air travelers nationally last week were packed by licensed and otherwise legitimate owners? It doesn’t matter. Stripped of the context of their seizure and meticulously filtered and posted to Instagram by a centralized team of bureaucrats, the images float out into the ether adjoining America’s deeply violent consumer culture. It’s no surprise that the most popular image, by total number of “Likes,” is the only one in which the jig is suspended — a gun is presented without any of the trappings of TSA Standard Operating Procedure, a blued steel handgun against a pockmarked metal surface, like some demented gun show ad, a row of bullets unevenly lining the bottom of the image.
This is the brittle language of public relations, the impoverished grumblings of a state security apparatus which has bloated and metastasized such that its function is no longer readily apparent, its objective reduced to a vague public-sphere omnipresence. It is the language — blogged, hashtagged, photographed — of authorized images of authorized violence, a culture to which there appears to be no reprieve. Perhaps ironically, the last time we were reminded of the TSA’s possible humanity was on Instagram, on the account of the rapper Freddie Gibbs — who posted an image of the medical marijuana stash in his checked luggage accompanied by a scrawled note from the TSA: “c’mon son.”