The Airport Security Dilemma

“TSA. You are supposed to be protecting us, but at this point you are… terrorizing us.” — Elie Mystal

TSA Security Checkpoint This week I’m in my first doctoral residency at Northeastern University, and while I’m writing about that elsewhere, I did want to share the experience I had getting there in the first place.

Northeastern University is in Boston and I live in Northern Virginia, meaning I first had to get there. It’s about a ten hour drive, and at first I considered taking my car, but then when I considered gas, tolls, and mileage, and checked out how little the flight would cost, I decided to fly. It helps that I’ve taken public transportation in Boston once before, when I flew up to speak at the Free Culture National Conference a few years ago, so I knew that getting from the airport to the place on campus where I was staying would be fairly easy.

Of course, this is the brave new twenty-first century, and that means when flying one gets a choice. No, not a choice of sodas, those cost extra now. I mean when going through security one can either go through the porn-o-matic scanner, or one can be groped. Now, while I don’t believe any of this actually makes travelers significantly safer, and don’t believe that those with delicate sensibilities should have to suffer these sorts of indignities and violations of privacy to fly on an airplane, I personally don’t really care if some random person sees a black and white scan of my junk. So you probably expect that means I went through the porn-o-matic, right?

Nope, I went for the groping instead. I know I’m not a medical doctor or anything, but I’ve read enough about the millimeter waves used by the porno scanners not to want to go anywhere near them. Yes, it’s possible that the sources of information that question the safety of these scanners may be suspect, but if there’s anything one can learn from history, it’s to disbelieve anything a government official says until proven otherwise — and they’re desperate to make people believe those scanners are perfectly safe.

So, how bad was the procedure? Well, I don’t believe he went to school for homeland security, but, to give credit where it’s due, the guy who patted me down at Reagan National Airport was extremely professional about it, telling me everything he was going to do ahead of time. It didn’t take very long, and while it was thorough, it wasn’t the end of the world. Of course, I’m a mentally healthy adult who’s never been abused, adopted religious sensibilities, or anything like that which might lead me to be sensitive about this sort of thing. And I could definitely see why people in those situations might feel extremely uncomfortable, even violated, by this procedure.

The other thing was that I was surprised I didn’t have to go through a metal detector. My bags went through the x-ray machines, as usual, but the pat down was the only procedure for everything on my person between the street and the airplane. Maybe it’s because I’ve worked in information security, but whenever I see a security measure I think of it (intellectually, of course) as a challenge to be defeated. I couldn’t help but wonder whether someone determined couldn’t figure out some means of getting dangerous items. There was a scan for chemical residue, but that wouldn’t pick up any metal objects I might have cleverly concealed on my person.

I know I sound dismissive of security, but that’s not really my objective. When I get on an airplane, I want to land at my destination and live my life, I don’t want to be on a plane that gets hijacked and flown into an office building or shot down by an F-16. But I also don’t think that sort of 9/11 scenario is as likely today as it was in 2001, for two main reasons. First, cockpits are inaccessible, so hijackers might take over the cabin, but they’re not going to gain control of the plane. Second, before 9/11 passengers were told to comply with hijacker demands. Does anyone think hijackers will be obeyed by a plane full of Americans from the “Let’s roll!” generation?

Homeland Security spokespeople and others often say that any security measures, no matter how intrusive, are acceptable in part because no one is forced to fly on an airplane. But someone who needs to fly somewhere for work is hardly in a position to resist in a time of double digit unemployment. More to the point, however, is that “You’re not forced to fly” works both ways — why can’t it be the easily terrorized, who demand unreasonable security measures to feel safer, be the ones who take the bus?