Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

TERMINAL MADNESS: What Is Airport Security?

Posted by M. C. on April 17, 2018

– James Fallows, 

IN AMERICA AND ACROSS MUCH OF THE WORLD, the security enhancements put in place following the catastrophe of September 11, 2001, have been drastic and of two kinds: those practical and effective, and those irrational and pointless.

The first variety have taken place almost entirely behind the scenes. Comprehensive explosives scanning for checked luggage, for instance, was long overdue and is a welcome addition. It’s the second variety, unfortunately that has come to dominate the air travel experience. I’m talking about the frisking, X-raying, body scanning, and confiscating that goes on at thousands of concourse checkpoints across the globe — activities that by and large waste our time, waste our money, and humiliate millions of us on a daily basis.

There are two fundamental flaws in our approach:

The first is a strategy that looks upon every single person who flies — old and young, fit and infirm, domestic and foreign, pilot and passenger — as a potential terrorist. That is to say, we’re searching for weapons rather than people who might actually use weapons. This is an impossible, unsustainable task in a system of such tremendous volume. As many as two million people fly each and every day in the United States alone. Tough-as-nails prison guards cannot keep knives out of maximum security cell blocks, never mind the idea of guards trying to root out every conceivable weapon at an overcrowded terminal.

The second flaw is our lingering preoccupation with the tactics used by the terrorists on September 11—the huge and tragic irony being that the success of the 2001 attacks had almost nothing to do with airport security in the first place. As conventional wisdom has it, the 9/11 terrorists exploited a weakness in airport security by smuggling aboard box cutters. But conventional wisdom is wrong. It was not a failure of airport security that allowed those men to hatch their takeover scheme. It was, instead, a failure of national security — a breakdown of communication and oversight at the FBI and CIA levels. What the men actually exploited was a weakness in our mindset — a set of presumptions based on the decades-long track record of hijackings and how they were expected to unfold. In years past, a hijacking meant a diversion to Beirut or Havana, with hostage negotiations and standoffs; crews were trained in the concept of “passive resistance.” The presence of box cutters was merely incidental, particularly when coupled with the bluff of having a bomb. They could have used knives fashioned from plastic, broken bottles wrapped with tape, or any of a thousand other improvised tools. The only weapon that mattered was the intangible one: the element of surprise. And so long as they didn’t chicken out, they were all but guaranteed to succeed…

Here’s a true story:

I’m at the TSA checkpoint at a major U.S. airport. I’m on duty, in my full uniform, and have all of my gear with me. I hoist my luggage onto the belt, then pass through the metal detector. Once on the other side, I’m waiting for my stuff to reappear when the belt suddenly groans to a stop.

“Bag check!” shouts the guard behind the monitor. Two of the most exasperating words in air travel, those are.
The bag in question turns out to be my roll-aboard. The guard has spotted something inside. The seconds tick by as she waits to confer with her colleague. One minute passes. Then two. Then three. All the while, the line behind me grows longer.

“Bag check!”

At last, another guard ambles over. There’s a conference. For some reason, these situations require a sort of football huddle, with lots of whispering and pointing, before the belt can be switched on again. Why an offending piece of luggage can’t simply be pulled from the machine and screened separately is a topic for another time, but let us ponder, for a moment, how much time is wasted each day by these checks.

Finally the second guard, the intensity of whose scowl is exceeded only by the weight of the chip on her shoulder, lifts my roll-aboard from the machine and walks toward me. “Is this yours?” she wants to know.

“Yes, it’s mine.”

“You got a knife in here?”

“A knife?”

“A knife,” she barks. “Some silverware?”

Yes, I do. I always do. Inside my suitcase I carry a spare set of airline-sized cutlery—a spoon, a fork, and a knife. Along with packets of noodles and small snacks, this is part of my hotel survival kit, useful in the event of short layovers when food isn’t available. It’s airline cutlery, the exact silverware that accompanies your meal on a long-haul flight. The pieces are stainless steel and about five inches long. The knife has a rounded end and a short row of teeth—I’d call them serrations, but that’s too strong a word. For all intents and purposes, it’s a miniature butter knife.

“Yes,” I tell the guard. “There’s a metal knife in there—a butter knife.”

She opens the compartment and takes out a small vinyl case containing the three pieces. After removing the knife, she holds it upward between two fingers and stares at me coldly. Her pose is like that of an angry schoolteacher about to berate a child for bringing something unsafe to class.

“You ain’t taking this through,” she says. “No knifes [sic]. You can’t bring a knife through here.”

It takes a moment for me to realize that she’s serious. “I’m…but…it’s…”

She throws it into a bin and starts to walk away.

“Wait a minute,” I say. “That’s airline silverware.”

“Doesn’t matter what it is. You can’t bring knifes [sic] through here.”

“Ma’am, that’s an airline knife. It’s the knife they give you on the plan”

“Have a good afternoon, sir.”

“You can’t be serious.”

With that, she grabs the knife out of the bin and walks over to one of her colleagues seated at the end of the checkpoint in a folding chair. I follow her over.

“This guy wants to bring this through.”

The man in the chair looks up lazily. “Is it serrated?”

She hands it to him. He looks at it quickly, then addresses me.

“No, this is no good. You can’t take this.”

“Why not?”

“It’s serrated.” He is talking about the little row of teeth along the edge. Truth be told, the knife in question, which I’ve had for years, is actually smaller and duller than most of the knives handed out by airlines to their first and business class customers. You’d be hard pressed to cut a slice of toast with it.

“Oh, come on.”

“What do you call these?” He runs his finger along the minuscule serrations.

“Those… but… they… it…”

“No serrated knives. You can’t take this.”

“But, sir, how can it not be allowed when it’s the same knife they give you on the plane?

“Those are the rules.”

“That’s impossible. Can I please speak to a supervisor?”

“I am the supervisor.”

There are those moments in life when time stands still and the air around you seems to solidify. You stand there in an amber of absurdity, waiting for the crowd to burst out laughing and the Candid Camera guy to appear from around the corner.

Except the supervisor is dead serious.

Realizing that I’m not getting my knife back, I try for the consolation prize, which is getting the man to admit that, if nothing else, the rule makes no sense. “Come on,” I argue. “The purpose of confiscating knives is to keep people from bringing them onto flights, right? But the passengers are handed these knives with their meals. There must be two hundred of them on every plane. At least admit that it’s a dumb rule.“

“It’s not a dumb rule.”

“Yes, it is.”

“No, it isn’t.”

And so on, until he asks me to leave.

This was wrong on so many levels that it’s hard to keep them straight…

Be seeing you

seat belt

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