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When Cupcakes Kill

For the past few years, the country has endured a cupcake craze of sorts. Boutique bakeries have opened up in cities across America offering these delectable hand-held treats. On any given day, you can find people lined up around the block in swanky Georgetown in Washington, DC at Georgetown Cupcake to open their wallets and mouths for the very treats your mom once sent you to school to hand out on your birthday. Even reality television has gotten in on the craze, which is just further proof to me that people will watch next to anything if you put it on TV.

For all of the popularity that these bakery treats have brought to mouths and to the country’s waistline, no one has ever seemed to explain to the American public (or anyone else) that cupcakes can kill. Enter TSA, the agency that is tragically more loathed than the IRS (which will take your money but at least let you keep your shoes on when you talk with them).

Recently, a traveler in Las Vegas had her red velvet cupcake, which was baked into a glass jar for delivery/presentation purposes, confiscated out of concern about the contents of its frosting. Whereas cupcakes in similar jars and boxes had passed through other airport screening without concern (except for maybe envious eyes of hungry screeners), this time the cupcake was a “no go.” In a post on TSA’s blog, the agency noted the screening officer “used their discretion on whether or not to allow the newfangled modern take on a cupcake per 3-1-1 guidelines. They chose not to let it go.”

For as far-fetched as people may think, terrorists have proven to be a novel and very creative lot fashioning anything and everything they can into explosives to kill people. Several years back, I had the fortune of taking some counterterrorism classes at USC’s CREATE where one of the experts shared footage of confiscated explosives (usually made of TATP) that had been made to look like toys, candies, toothpaste and other fairly common items so as to keep them disguised from law enforcement and intelligence officials.

For as much as we may “ooh” and “aah” about the cool gadgets from the litany of James Bond and Mission Impossible films that can create explosions and cause havoc for our heroes on the silver screen in the lands of “make believe,” the facts are what may appear harmless may not be, and what TSA was doing was its job.

Now, I have no doubt there will be a tidal wave of late-night comedian jokes; Congressional Member finger-wagging; and even possibly an Occupy Wall Street encampment and rallying cry screaming at the civil rights violation to the cupcake loving crowds of America, but all you have to do is take a simple look at the front page of TSA’s homepage at the Week At a Glance feature to get an idea of what has been stopped from getting on a plane. I’m sure there was a day when a box cutter looked pretty innocent and innocuous too…It was September 10, 2001.

It is also easy to get angry and frustrated at what TSA screeners have to do every day. It’s even easier when it’s a situation like that of screening an elderly person done in a questionable manner. Frankly, most of the time going through the screening process is a royal pain in the keister, but the facts are screening passengers, carry-ons and luggage are there for a reason and 10 years after 9/11 we seem to forget that fact more and more every day.

It’s also easy to make fun of the fact the icing on a cupcake could be explosive to something other than your own waistline, and I say that as a fat guy!

The decisions that screeners make daily are moment by moment judgment calls, and with the right training, personal temperament, skills, and technologies, those decisions can safeguard us from the visible threats to the deliciously disguised ones too.

Rich Cooper blog primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More
  • Anonymous

    As the author points out, ANYTHING could be a bomb and, in fact, an explosive can easily be hidden in or on the body, in a carryon, or in checked luggage. The full body scanners are easily defeated by anyone who knows how they work. Screening is, for the most part, a waste of resources better devoted to intelligence, law enforcement, and disaster response. Also: You can bet that the confiscated confection was either consumed by a screener, or casually tossed into an open container along with all the other allegedly hazardous incendiaries, explosives, and biological weapons — which tells you all you need to know about how seriously  TSA  **really** takes the threat.