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 fan.

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.

Eventually, "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. . . .

August 24, 2006