Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Has airport security gone too far? And is it making us safer?

Gawker today reported that a TSA agent forced a disabled boy to remove his leg braces and walk through the metal detector without them, on his way to Disney Land for his fourth birthday.  The TSA has since apologized, saying the agents behavior was against protocol, and the boy should have been given special screening.  But this just makes me ask, is airport security really making us any safer?  Or just more angry?  I want effective airport security measures, and lots of them.  But I just wonder if these are the right ones, especially since they're becoming increasingly burdensome on travellers.  I hate having to pack all my cosmetics in a little plastic bag, hate having to think about what gifts I can accept or bring while visiting someplace (my Grandpa once bought me a bottle of vodka that ended up costing me $25 to check), hate having to strip down to go through the metal detector.

The restrictions on carry-on items are especially burdensome now that most airlines are charging for any checked bags, thus forcing customers to choose between their shampoo and their wallet.  I don't have any leg braces that set off metal detectors, but I have had the humiliating experience of TSA agents asking me to take off a sweatshirt or sweater that, while it may have a zipper or buttons on it, is in fact an integral part of my clothing. 
(I have noticed that it is almost always male agents who make these requests.  I don't think it's always because they're creeps--though some are--but I think it usually occurs to a female agent that women dress in layers.) I usually refuse to strip down to anything past short sleeves, saying that what I'm wearing underneath is "not appropriate."  If this doesn't work, I go for the pat down.

All of this would be palatable if I thought these restrictions were working, but I'm just not sure they are.  More often than not, I realize I left a lipgloss or water bottle at the bottom of one of my bags, and it escaped security unscathed.  I've had to give up a cast-iron pan I got for Chanukah (apparently it can be used as a club?), but gotten through with accidentally packed scissors, aerosol bug spray, and more.  And some have speculated that having to worry about all those four-ounce containers distract TSA agents from detecting suspicious activity that might actually signal terrorist intentions.  In an article in the LA Times about the undie bomber, security expert (according to the LA Times) Bruce Shneier said:
"This is security theater.  We've always known you can strap explosive material to your body without a metal triggering device and get it on a plane.  You need to stop terrorists before they get to the airport."
In this 2007 NY Times article, Patrick Smith discusses the fallacy of thinking we can head off security threats by making responses in response to things that have already happened.   He especially expresses doubt about the liquids ban, citing an explosive expert:
Among first to express serious skepticism about the bombers’ readiness was Thomas C. Greene, whose essay in The Register explored the extreme difficulty of mixing and deploying the types of binary explosives purportedly to be used. Green conferred with Professor Jimmie C. Oxley, an explosives specialist who has closely studied the type of deadly cocktail coveted by the London plotters.
“The notion that deadly explosives can be cooked up in an airplane lavatory is pure fiction,” Greene told me during an interview. “A handy gimmick for action movies and shows like ‘24.’ The reality proves disappointing: it’s rather awkward to do chemistry in an airplane toilet. Nevertheless, our official protectors and deciders respond to such notions instinctively, because they’re familiar to us: we’ve all seen scenarios on television and in the cinema. This, incredibly, is why you can no longer carry a bottle of water onto a plane.”
He ends particularly forcefully:
The truth is, regardless of how many pointy tools and shampoo bottles we confiscate, there shall remain an unlimited number of ways to smuggle dangerous items onto a plane. The precise shape, form and substance of those items is irrelevant. We are not fighting materials, we are fighting the imagination and cleverness of the would-be saboteur.
Thus, what most people fail to grasp is that the nuts and bolts of keeping terrorists away from planes is not really the job of airport security at all. Rather, it’s the job of government agencies and law enforcement. It’s not very glamorous, but the grunt work of hunting down terrorists takes place far off stage, relying on the diligent work of cops, spies and intelligence officers. Air crimes need to be stopped at the planning stages. By the time a terrorist gets to the airport, chances are it’s too late.
In the end, I’m not sure which is more troubling, the inanity of the existing regulations, or the average American’s acceptance of them and willingness to be humiliated. These wasteful and tedious protocols have solidified into what appears to be indefinite policy, with little or no opposition. There ought to be a tide of protest rising up against this mania. Where is it? At its loudest, the voice of the traveling public is one of grumbled resignation. The op-ed pages are silent, the pundits have nothing meaningful to say.
The same author wrote in Salon in 2009 that the TSA's obsession with pointy objects was ludicrous, pointing out that weapons are routinely made in prison from toothbrushes and other benign-seeming tools. "Yet whether by virtue of incompetence or willful ignorance, TSA continues to waste untold time and untold millions of dollars on a tedious, zero-tolerance fixation with blades and sharps," he writes.  Elsewhere, a particularly humorous critic of these policies has been Garrison Keillor, who has worried, among other things, that if someone tries to board a plane with a bomb in their colon, we'll all be in for much more unpleasant air travel in no time.

What do you think?  Do whiners like me need to suck it up so we can all be safer, or have airport security regulations gone to far in restricting our privacy without benefiting our safety?  Do you wish Obama would tackle this, or are there much bigger fish to fry?


  1. I fly a lot for work and pleasure and think that nowadays the restrictions are useless. At first I went along everytime there was a change, if it was to keep us safe then count me in. However in the past few years I've realized these are making no difference. If somebody really wants to hurt me on a plane, they will find a way to do it, shampoo or not! It instead has made me hate going to the airport! I do think it is minor in the grand scheme of our problems, but I always wonder to myself if everytime they makes changes it is for the allusion of safety alone.

  2. I don't mind the taking off my shoes or jacket. I usually dress for travel, easy off shoes, no metal jewelry and a tee or dress gets me through in record time. I even love that some airports now have expert traveler lanes for security. However the carry on policy is where I get mad
    After the underwear bomber, I heard a great comment on WGN radio in chicago, something along the lines of we can't profile people, so we profile articles of clothing, i.e shoes.
    However, the way struggling airlines are scrapping to make money off of us any way they can, I don't see these policies changing any time soon. I imagine they make almost as much money off bag check fees as they do off the tickets. But if money truly is the goal, give me an airline with more expensive tickets, but none of these useless travel restrictions and charges and with real in flight refreshments

  3. in case ANYONE was still wondering if airport security is theater or safety, or a job for lowlifes.......the other day, leaving Vegas (climbing, not gambling, thanks), I was wearing my usual carefully crafted outfit--spandex tee and yoga pants (the plan is to leave little to the imagination and offer to remove the rest if anyone tries to convince me I might have a toothpick hidden in there that they cannot see but could find by touching me--unlike Coca Colo, I prefer total nudity to being pawed by strangers) , as I stepped through the magnetometer, hands grabbed me about the waist--a uniformed female plays a bit around my waist as I scream "what the f&%$ are you touching me for""--she backs off (apparently only my waist was suspect) and sneers at her "colleagues," "she wonders what I am touching her for" ....silence from them, and says to me "unannounced random search". She picked the wrong chick. I scream, "I have a right against being molested" and get back "you surrender all your rights when you come to the airport." Her superiors did not think so..........


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