Who Decides What A Dual-Use Item Is?

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Robert M. Thorson, a Connecticut geologist, has traveled throughout his career to conferences and conventions, and for the last three years, he has taken with him one of his favorite rocks, a banded piece of the Hebron Gneiss, which he describes as resembling “a broken slice of layer cake composed of licorice and cream cheese.” This is one of Thorson’s favorite rocks, and, he says, a touchstone for those who have attended his lectures.

While attempting to fly to Hood River, Oregon, to attend the Stone Foundation‘s annual meeting, Thorson had his rock confiscated by TSA staff at Bradley International Airport. Thorson does not check luggage on business trips, so the rock was in his carry-on bag. A TSA employee pronounced it a “dual-use item,” then called her supervisor, who inspected the specimen and also declared it a dual-use item. Thorson was given the option of going back to the ticket counter and checking his rock as baggage, but he did not think he had time to do so. He then asked if he could claim the rock upon his return, and was told that he could not.

In his editorial in the Hartford Courant, Thorson muses that perhaps a stethoscope should be considered a dual-use item because a doctor could strangle someone with it. For some time now, I have been asking why pockets knives have to be confiscated, but neckties and tube socks are okay, despite the fact that both could be used to strangle someone, as could the cord of a notebook computer or other electronic device or appliance.

Says Thorson:

Who knows? Perhaps your tax dollars will be used by an internal think tank of agency hire-ups to ponder why on earth a geologist would travel with a rock. Who knows? Perhaps the government will wiretap my phone or check my library records to see whether I have checked out a Koran or a book about stone-age warfare.

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THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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