Is Inconvenience a Measure of Security?

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Does inconvenience
equal security? It apparently must, if I'm to take my recent trip
to Germany as any indication. I had the misfortune of being across
the Atlantic on a trip during the most recent scare — the one involving
the alleged plot to target transatlantic flights with Gatorade and
iPods. The plot details themselves are irrelevant. They'll end up
shifting sufficiently as the story evolves so that nobody, even
professional commentators, will have a clear grasp of what exactly
happened, just like the group in Canada and the Miami Seven.

These are living
details, in other words, open to change and interpretation, much
like the modern statists' collective perspective on the Constitution.

My only observable
evidence of how safe they're trying to make me is the sizable hassle
I have to endure if I go anywhere. It was stringent enough right
after 9/11, and yet it plainly isn't effective — is never going
to be effective — so they continuously ratchet it up, add more
hoops for us to jump through, more hurdles to clear, and then move
the goalposts for good measure.

In other words,
any new level of harassment that they can successfully impose on
the public at large will become the new default condition. It's
still an endless "war," right? I suspect these temporary
measures will be in place in perpetuity. That much is obvious.

But without
the benefit of measurable effectiveness, how can they claim that
any of this is working? Before I even finished that sentence, I
could hear the patent, knee-jerk response: well, we haven't been
attacked again by plane, have we? No, I suppose that we haven't,
but rather than trumpet this relative success (again, if all of
our data comes from government, how can we ever truly trust the
parameters of the experiment?), the US and UK governments instead
preach sentiments of fear and instability, as if to say that any
number of invasive measures will never be enough. Because
the terrorists are all genius virtual supermen. And religious fanatics.
At least these boogeymen are mostly foreign-born. If Hillary were
to become president, I suspect the boogeymen du-jour would be middle-class
white guys who quote the Constitution, the same as during the 90s.

I've always
been critical of the screening processes put into place after 9/11
because I think they're wasteful and don't accomplish any measure
of safety. No matter how many little old ladies they "wand,"
if somebody wants to get something on a plane, they'd only have
to infiltrate the airline catering service, or bribe an $8-an-hour
baggage handler to sneak them a certified ground crew ID. The threat
at this point is not going to be extinguished by inconveniencing
passengers even further. However, if someone were to be able to
sneak a weapon or device of some kind on board, the screening process
does pretty much guarantee that the plane will be full of victims.

As I said,
judging by my recent trip, I must've been safe as hell, because
the screening process in Paris was so extensive that I almost missed
my return flight.

I typically
try to avoid traveling, if I can, because I enjoy my home and my
family. Who doesn't prefer sitting in his own chair, in front of
his own TV? But a couple of weeks ago, I had to go to Berlin for
work. I didn't have a passport, but I was able to acquire one just
in the nick of time, get on a plane, and head to Germany for two
days of meetings. Before I'd even recovered from the jetlag, on
Thursday, my wife told me about the "terror alerts" that
were all over the news (there's that word again), and I naturally
started scouring the web for details. I was scheduled to return
on Saturday.

After reading
several wildly contradictory and inaccurate stories about the bans
on various carry-on items like liquids, gels, cellphones, iPods,
and laptops, and after reading some of the unbelievably subservient
quotations from American travelers in Heathrow Airport declaring
that they were willingly checking even their books, I was
practically despondent. What was wrong with these people?

It was immediately
shaping up to be yet another typical over-hyped alert, of course,
which I didn't find particularly surprising, but I was very
irritated by the circumstances — that the one time I left
the country, something like this happened. That's my luck.

Now of course,
being the moderately paranoid type, I could imagine all of the hassle
that I would have to endure to gain admittance back into the US
when I arrived in immigrations and customs. I tend to send a lot
of outspoken email to friends and relatives, and well, let's just
say that I haven't had any expectation of privacy regarding my digital
communications since they revealed the existence of Echelon
and Carnivore
during the Clinton administration. Not only do
I not expect privacy, but I even go so far as to assume
that it's being monitored, and I craft my commentary with the assumption
that at some point, somewhere, a pasty-faced FBI/CIA/NSA analyst
will have to read it if I use enough keywords in purposefully innocuous
ways. (Hey, if I can make them waste their time on fishing expeditions,
it only proves my point that fishing expeditions are an inefficient
waste of resources.)

I was originally
scheduled to reenter the US at JFK airport in New York, where I
would catch a connecting flight to Atlanta. Sitting in Berlin, though,
I decided that the last thing I wanted to do was to go through
customs in New York City metro's busiest airport, so I contacted
the travel agent who booked my trip and had her reroute me through
Paris. I figured, "Hey, the French hate us — freedom fries,
Iraq, Lance Armstrong, and all — so I'll bet that out of disdain,
they're not going to honor whatever heightened level of screening
the US requests of them." I was wrong. Apparently there's been
some sort of reconciliation.

Bear in mind
here that my goal was to minimize the hassle of the extra screening
measures. It goes without saying that I assumed that the
threat was bogus. That’s my nature. If the government tells me that
it’s nighttime, I’ll head outside to check for the moon. If my operating
assumptions are that government is inherently inefficient, self-serving,
and incompetent, why in the world would I trust the government to
tell me the truth about something important?

I had a little
over an hour to change planes in Paris. Charles de Gaulle Airport
is absolutely huge — like DFW or Atlanta Hartsfield — so this would've
been difficult under normal circumstances. I had a fifteen-minute
walk to the immigration area, which included evading two whole sections
of the terminal which were roped off because someone left a bag
unattended. Finally, I worked my way through the massive crowds
and saw the immense line where I was to spend the next forty minutes
of my life. While in line, I talked to an American who was bound
for Colorado through Atlanta. The line snaked slowly through about
ten back-and-forth rows. There were only three booths open out of
twelve, of course. As the immigrations agent stamped my passport,
he asked me if I liked the Falcons. Apparently he's a Michael Vick

Then I had
to go through the first security screening. I was instructed to
remove my shoes, my belt, and everything that was in my pockets
(including about two pounds of Euro coins). I had checked both of
my bags, even my laptop (despite my better judgement), and in a
plastic bag, I carried a couple of books and a large box of duty-free
gum that I’d just bought in the Berlin airport. After I’d successfully
crossed through the metal detector, a guy performed a full-body
pat-down on me that was so extensive that I remarked to the
American behind me that the screener should be obligated to buy
me dinner.

The other American
brought his laptop along, and they tore through the contents of
his entire bag, even rifling through folders and papers. This is
precisely what I was trying to avoid. One young lady took my gum.
I was surprised by this, so I started asking her why gum wasn't
allowed, when it wasn't powder, liquid, or gel. She had no answer,
but only shook her head, smiling. Some things are universal. I was
chewing some of this gum while we were having this discussion, so
apparently the ban only extended to unchewed gum still in the pack.

You have to
imagine this scene: hundreds of people in several security lines,
wearing paper booties on their feet, removing articles of clothing,
being subjected to pat-downs, pouring liquids into trash bins, and
defending their possessions against the greedy-eyed screeners. I
saw this somewhere recently, and it's true: if the supposed plot
was to combine volatile chemicals on board the plane to create a
liquid explosive, how does it make any sense to have people pouring
these unverified liquids into garbage cans in the overcrowded terminal?

Once finally
through that checkpoint, it was about 9:55 am, and my flight was
to take off at 10:15. The train we were going to have to ride would
take twenty minutes to reach the terminal where our plane was. I'm
no genius, but I was capable of doing that arithmetic in my head,
and I knew that I didn't have enough time. I jogged down a long
hallway, having to stop for another line to show my ticket and passport
again, and then there was another screening before I was allowed
on the tram. After several minutes, the tram filled up, and we rode
over to a new terminal.

By this time
the American man with the laptop and I had become fast friends,
and we ended up running through the terminal, where we were subjected
to yet another screening, for good measure. As a man quizzed
me about where, when, and how I packed my bags (as if lying isn't
a prerequisite skill for terrorists: Why don't you just tell
me if you have a plot to blow up this plane?), I remarked about
the gum being taken, as I was still irritated. He laughed, as if
surprised, and then he just shook his head, as if to say, "well,
what are you gonna do?" He then told me that gum wasn't contraband,
in his opinion. In his opinion.

The American
from Shanghai and I were finally allowed to walk to the plane, which
was outside, and board. It was to be a full flight, of course, and
we only had three minutes to spare. I slumped into my assigned seat,
sweating profusely and breathing heavily. But we didn't actually
pull away from the gate for another hour. They held the plane because
so many passengers were stranded in security. God only knows what
happened to the American from Shanghai and others who had to make
connecting flights in Atlanta.

After nine
unbearable hours surrounded by screaming kids, we touched down at
Atlanta Hartsfield. It wasn't over yet, though. After I cleared
immigrations in Atlanta, I had to claim my bags and head to customs.
I handed over a customs declaration card that I filled out on the
plane to an agent, and then I passed right on through. But before
I could exit the airport and go home, I had to hand over my bags
again, and I watched them disappear on a conveyor belt into
another rubber-stripped hole. They told me that I had to go to the
main baggage claim, four terminals away, to claim them again. Unbelievable.
But before I could reenter the airport (so that I could exit, remember),
I had to go through another security checkpoint and once
again remove my shoes, belt, pocket contents, etc.

I rode the
train to the terminal with the main baggage claim area. The scene
at baggage claim was complete pandemonium. Not only were the flights
not displayed clearly above the carousels, but there weren't agents
directing anybody where to go. There were also hundreds of
unclaimed bags lining the floors between the carousels, and people
swarmed everywhere. Yet nobody evacuated the terminal because of
these unattended bags.

"Paris" appeared on a sign above a carousel (with no flight
number), so I took up a spot there and waited, hoping that there
wasn't more than one flight from Paris. There were only a few other
passengers alongside me out of the hundreds that had been on the
plane, so I'm not sure where the other bags or passengers were.
While standing there, I noticed that there appeared to be nobody
checking bag tickets against the stubs in boarding passes. In
effect, any common criminal could walk in right off the street (there
were no checkpoints from that point to the outside), grab one or
several of the obvious laptop bags, and walk off with several computers.

Finally, my
bags made it there, thankfully, and I took my leave, resolving never
to travel anywhere by plane ever again for the rest of my life.

In retrospect,
the only thing that's worse than the added, meaningless screening
measures and the attendant anxiety of almost missing my flight was
how many times I heard comments about how people were willing to
do "just about anything to be safe." Worse yet, no matter
how ridiculous the screening measures become, people will comply
with them while having no real expectation of safety. Does anybody
believe that getting fingerprinted
before they fly will guarantee safety? Then why do it?

The thing that
everyone seems to be forgetting is that there is risk in life. No
matter what we do, we cannot eliminate it.

So why do we
march in lockstep, accepting increasingly humiliating levels of
intrusion and inconvenience, with zero expectation of effectiveness?
Why does nobody attempt to reconcile this massive, un-American intrusion
against what the administration says? Don't these people even expect
a little security for their liberty? Dick Cheney at this point sounds
like an old vinyl 45, endlessly skipping on the same ten seconds,
over and over: there's going to be another attack; we're gonna
get hit; it's only a matter of time. God forbid you get accused
of having a "pre-9/11 mindset."

I'm no better,
of course. I didn't protest because I didn't want to end up getting
my citizenship revoked, being declared
an enemy combatant
, and being whisked away to Guantanamo. I
just wanted to get home. It's one thing to make a trip understanding
that these new rules are in place. It's another thing entirely to
have them move the goalposts while you're already somewhere. My
answer, of course, is that I'll try to avoid flying.

But ask yourself
how many people you know who are seemingly unfazed by all this.
When will it be too much? What would be too much? Where does the
public at large draw a line? Their tolerance so far has amazed me.

Remove my belt?
My pants? You want my gum? My medicine? My baby's milk? My fingerprints?
A blood sample? A lock of my hair? What's that? You want a full
body X-ray nudie shot for your personal collection? If I board the
airplane in my underwear, will that make me safe? You swear?

Okay, if you
say so. . . .

24, 2006

Trotter [send him mail]
is a technical writer in Atlanta, Georgia.

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