Monday, December 06, 2010

We Are Now Free To Move About Your Pants


It's not as much fun to catch a plane as it used to be. Time was you could just climb aboard without anybody wanting to see anything more than a boarding pass.

You'd stretch out in extra wide seats, drink as much as you wanted, wander around the aisles, smoke 'em if you had 'em and dig into a full course meal using a razor sharp steak knife and silverware you could've easily sharpened into a shiv before you went up to hang with the pilots and maybe even strap into the jumper seat to watch the landing from the cockpit.

Then around 1969 (the year with the most hijackings on record) out came the metal detection wands and then the carry-on baggage X-ray and departure lounges where your Mom wasn't allowed to come in and give you a final hug.

Since 9/11 and the shoe and underwear bombers, just getting to the plane has become an obstacle course. And once you're strapped in, you know you better be on your best behavior.

I'm sure a lot of that is warranted and it's certainly understandable. But more and more, I'm wondering if the claim that it's all "Security Theatre" isn't just as valid.


I caught a flight to the Caribbean a few weeks after 9/11 and was frankly both impressed and relieved at how much extra attention was paid to what I was carrying on the plane and how many people wanted to double check my ID.

It was probably unlikely that a crowd of drunken Canadian sun-seekers might include a suicidal terrorist muttering "Death to America", but since we were flying over a number of major US cities, you couldn't blame anybody for wanting to make sure.

But on the way home, we didn't even go through a metal detector and departed from an airport without so much as a picket fence around it. The phrase "soft target" came readily to mind and I began to wonder how much of the security concerns were for show rather than an actual defensive strategy.

When you fly from Canada to the States, you usually have to kick your shoes off. But you don't when you're flying domestically. Yet I've been on US bound flights when the Screeners told me they "weren't doing that today".

Maybe shoe bombers don't take advantage of Saturday discounts.

Like many people, I've also gotten aboard and discovered a Buck knife left over from my last camping trip that nobody found. Twice I've gone through three sets of security before the airline employee at the gate asked if I had my real boarding pass instead of the one I was waving around for a later connecting flight.

Either those security people who had sternly studied it couldn't read or they figured I wasn't getting on any plane with what I was carrying so I obviously posed no in-flight threat.

But the most obvious hint that the airport security check might be an elaborate form of performance art occurred one day while I was at the pre-security security check where the guy with a display of correct sized liquid containers checks to make sure you're not carrying any that aren't.

As his partner squinted at my "not actually for this flight" boarding pass, I watched him confiscate a couple of over-sized water bottles and Michael Jordan them into his trash recepticle. I remember thinking that if they'd contained Nitro Glycerin, he, me and about half the airport would've been instantly vaporized. 

Then as he went through my stuff, an airport maintenance guy came by to drop off a fresh trash barrel and pick up the one full of seized cans and bottles. For starters, he wasn't wearing a Hazmat suit.

In fact, he didn't even have a pair of rubber gloves. So like the security agent, he knew there really wasn't anything dangerous in what he was hauling away.

I asked if they got to keep any of the cans of soda or bottles of booze in the trash. He smiled and shook his head. "I wish. But it all has to go into the dumpster."

Me: "Where does the dumpster go?"

Him: (a shrug) "Into a garbage truck like all the other trash."

Meaning if somebody was carrying some airborne botulism, can of radioactive isotopes or whatever else evil genius terrorists concoct, it's now in your local landfill -- or already seeping into the groundwater -- or mutating rats and seagulls into giant, rabid killing machines.


When the latest traveler's indignity, "the pat down", became de rigueur South of the Border, I became convinced the process was more for show than actual terrorist interdiction.

And like all theatre, it's a little more expensive to produce than other forms of distraction.

Perhaps an argument can be made that knowing such a search option exists deters would-be evil-doers, but I still feel sorry for all those folks who have to be groped and re-groped just so they can go somewhere to see their grandchildren.

I also think a lot of the firestorm of protest came from people less upset by the intrusion on their privacy than the realization that their world is changing yet again, and that once respected and deeply held values are being pushed aside with no assurance that what's coming will make life better.

And nobody seems capable of explaining why the completely non-intrusive security screening at Israeli airports with its incredibly higher success rate at preventing terror attacks won't work just as well here.

Maybe, like every teenage girl, Americans are discovering its just far easier to come up with 50 guys who only want to grope you than to find one who can sense what's really on your mind.

Maybe, like so many things that become major media events, the "pat-down" will one day seem as normal as emptying all the change out of your pockets before going through a metal scanner.

Maybe it'll be just one more thing that mediocre stand-up comics endlessly riff about.

Or maybe it'll be one of those things that makes people want to hang onto the life they value a little tighter and fight to make those performing the theatre actually do something real for a change.


Allan Eastman said...

I just had a frisk in Frankfurt that was better than the one I got the next night on Soi Cowboy...

Alex Epstein said...

Bruce Schneier blogs about airport security rather intelligently, but the wittiest comment I've heard was that the TSA would save many more lives if they screened for high blood pressure.

Rusty James said...

Did you hear about the little boy who was made to remove a prosthetic leg and 'walk' through the metal detector?

Or the middle aged woman being attacked by inspection guards from behind and being hauled into the back of a chair and onto the floor?

How about the machine gun-carrying US soldier who had his nail clippers confiscated?

Watch yourself Jim. Watch. Your. Self!