Saturday, October 18, 2008

Airport "security"

Like lots of people these days I travel on airlines several times a year. Despite the regularity of this occurrence, I never cease to be shocked and amazed by the state of airport security. It seems to me that in the wake of 9/11 that public officials rushed to put in place that placed a premium on appearances rather than actual effectiveness. This would all just be another expensive government joke if it wasn't such an irritant.

In response to the "boxcutter" blades employed by the 9/11 hijackers passengers were forced to surrender any pocketknives or other blades, including those found on keyring-style multipurpose tools with blades only an inch or two long. Thus far I have been forced to surrender two such "weapons" after forgetting to remove them prior to traveling or place them in my check in luggage at the airport. To me this has always been somewhat amusing, conjuring images in my head of a hijacker springing up from his seat and screaming for the passengers to do exactly as he says or else they are going to feel the business end of his weapon -- a 1.5" blade from his keyring.

The decision to prohibit any blades was soon followed by required screening of passenger shoes -- a direct response to the attempted airplane "shoe-bombing" of Richard Reid. Next up were liquids and gels, which I seem to recall was in response to intelligence indicating that terrorists were considering an attack using chemicals that could be passed off as household items such as Coke or toothpaste.

The point, of course, is that in every instance security officials were reacting and fighting the last battle. By the time they had erected barriers to one type of attack the bad guys had already moved on to something else.

All of this was compounded by the highly questionable decision to federalize the workforce despite the fact that there was no evidence that the privately run security apparatus had any obvious shortcomings. But nevermind, the government -- that paragon of efficiency and effectiveness -- was on the case.

The result has been something of a circus. We have long lines and bottlenecks that consist of TSA personnel squinting at monitors attempting to discern whether the contents of passenger bags contain prohibited items -- and often failing. Indeed, on two occasions I found myself at Denver International Airport in the security line and discovered that I still had my tiny blade/nailfile/screwdriver tool on my keychain. Not wanting to give it up, I took it off an inserted it next to my digital camera in its case, hoping that the TSA screener would think that it was either part of the digital camera itself or an accessory. Whatever the case, it worked. And that is just a trick that I thought of in a couple minutes, imagine what a dedicated terrorist could accomplish?

Then, after you get past security sans any water bottle or other such liquid, you find yourself in the concourse where there are stores brimming with drinks for sale. Have each and every one of them been screened? What about the employees who sell them? The answer, as described in this article, is not really. A sample:
...At LaGuardia, in New York, the transportation-security officer in charge of my secondary screening emptied my carry-on bag of nearly everything it contained, including a yellow, three-foot-by-four-foot Hezbollah flag, purchased at a Hezbollah gift shop in south Lebanon. The flag features, as its charming main image, an upraised fist clutching an AK-47 automatic rifle. Atop the rifle is a line of Arabic writing that reads Then surely the party of God are they who will be triumphant.

The officer took the flag and spread it out on the inspection table. She finished her inspection, gave me back my flag, and told me I could go. I said, “That’s a Hezbollah flag.” She said, “Uh-huh.” Not “Uh-huh, I’ve been trained to recognize the symbols of anti-American terror groups, but after careful inspection of your physical person, your behavior, and your last name, I’ve come to the conclusion that you are not a Bekaa Valley–trained threat to the United States commercial aviation system,” but “Uh-huh, I’m going on break, why are you talking to me?”
Read the whole thing. For additional thoughts on the subject and what should be done, read this.


zi said...

and let's not forget the "random" screening selections, which inevitably pick either a) a pregnant woman or with a child, b) anyone over the age of 70, or c) anyone in a wheelchair. i've flown a tremendous amount this past year, and not once have i been pulled in for any sort of screening. i attribute it to confidence, but you'd think once in a while my beard and my name would warrant an extra pat-down. of course, then they might be afraid i'd sue the government.

incidentally, i always felt DIA security procedures seemed rather efficient. maybe they just aren't paying attention! DCA is the worst though.

Colin said...

A good point. I have been pulled aside for random screening myself, but I almost cracked up laughing when I saw a 70+ black woman getting the treatment. PC takes precedence over profiling.