Illusionist reveals TSA is all smoke and mirrors

It is no small irony that Daniel Sylvester, a.k.a. the magician Sylvester the Jester, contacted me several days ago to reveal his mistreatment at the hands of the Transportation Security Administration — and to share his troubling conclusions about a federal agency that likes to think of itself as our last line of defense against terrorism.

In August, Sylvester returned to Los Angeles from a short gig in Tempe, Ariz. When he opened his checked luggage, he discovered that its contents had been unceremoniously dumped out and then thrown back in.

There was a telltale sign of who created this mess because there was TSA tape over some of the props they had broken and a few odd and ends that they left strewn in the interior.

Several props were damaged and an expensive Sennheiser cordless microphone receiver was left loose to clank around in the interior of the case instead of being in its protective case.

Sylvester immediately phoned the TSA and was directed to the agency’s site to file a claim. He did, sending photos of the damage and repair estimates. Two weeks later, he got a call from a TSA representative.

She said they had reviewed my claim, and that I really did not provide proof that TSA was responsible damage of my equipment.

I explained that I carefully packed my equipment. And who else could have opened it and damaged it?

She replied in a surly tone, “Well I read your statement that you checked in two hours early, which means that anyone could have opened your case and messed around with things. Sometimes airline employees get bored and that’s what they’ll do.”

The TSA representative also told him with “definitive arrogance” that it couldn’t honor his claim because he didn’t have receipts for the damaged items.

Wow. It sure didn’t take long for the TSA to steal a page from the airline playbook on luggage claims. Its secret manual includes instructions on how to deny you are responsible for the damage and avoid paying a claim by insisting on seeing receipts that you know the passenger doesn’t have.

One of these days I’ll find that manual.

Sylvester has had some time to ponder the effectiveness of the TSA. I think his conclusions are interesting.

As a magician, and as someone who understands perception better then most, I can honestly say with great confidence that the TSA is a waste of time and taxpayers’ money.

Any truly committed terrorist would not be effected by TSA in the least.

The problem with the function of TSA is that their heads are pointed in the wrong direction. Instead of interviewing the people, and making making sure they know who is flying and why, they herd us like unintelligent cattle and go through all of our luggage to see if we have anything that could be used as a weapon or that can be flammable.

In fact, the whole airplane is flammable and can be a weapon.

This all sickens me.

Sylvester probably speaks for a lot of travelers. The TSA has lost its way. Or maybe it never had a way to begin with.

And who better to expose an illusion than an illusionist?

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at

  •  Smoke and mirrors….

  • K.M. Richards

    “What’s easier to prove than a bottle of water? All they have to do is
    make us take a swig and watch us swallow. If it’s anything but water,
    they know.”

    Exactly.  In fact, that was what happened to me the last time I needed to visit the State Office Building in downtown Los Angeles.  No hassle from security, they just asked me to take a drink from my bottle to confirm that it contained water.  Who’s going to deny that reasonable request?

  • Miami510

    The problems with TSA are two fold; one strategic and one tactical.
    Strategic:  Terroristic events are caused by people, not items.  Items are the means by which the terrorists carry out their aim.  We should be concentrating on the person rather than the means. 
    Tactical:  If more than three ounces is dangerous, why wouldn’t three suicide-minded terrorists each carry three ounces and perhaps a fourth carry the means on detonation? 
    Tactical:  In this life, generally, you get what you pay for.  The minimum wage is $7.25 per hour.  TSA’s minimum educational requirements are such that someone without a high school diploma but has worked as a guard in a store can be accepted.
    Israeli security personnel are highly trained for concentrating on the individual; this is called behavior recognition.  Israel pays the equivalent of $26+ per hour, and a great percentage of security employees are ex-military.
    The Israeli security model requires human thought and value judgments.  TSA is all about standardization… removing human judgment in favor of policies, procedures and being… “Oh so politically correct.”  That’s why an 89 year old grandmother receives the same attention as a 24 year old Arab man wearing a keffeyah  (Arab head dress). 

  • Former magician James Randi, now a writer and investigator of paranormal claims, paid tribute to Gardner on his website Saturday, calling his colleague and longtime friend “a very bright spot in my firmament.”

    He ended his Scientific American column in 1981 and retired to Hendersonville, N.C. Gardner continued to write, and in 2002 moved to Norman, where his son lives.

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