Come with me once again into the cycle of symbolic security-tightening at the airport. Refrain from petting the German Shepherd busily sniffing your duffle. Try not to look into your bag too many times. Actually, try not to look at much of anything. Let your carry-ons get whisked away. See babies submit to frisking. Listen to Michael Chertoff plead for widespread use of the body scanner, otherwise known as the “virtual strip search.” No more personal items on the lap. No more pillows on the floor. No more blankets on the head. And when you go to the bathroom, everyone will be watching anxiously.
Frankly, I’m fine with all of it. Air travel is the one thing that legitimately, categorically scares me shitless, fear I feel in the brainless way a dog fears thunder, so I’ve never had a problem with increased security measures. I basically believe they’re intended to make me and my fellow travelers not die. I do get a twinge of worry about their efficacy, that while we hunt down the threats of yore, aspiring terrorists are moving on to tactical frontiers beyond our purview (underpants! Of course!). Sometimes, my own pants sliding down as I wait beltlessly in line at the metal detector, that phrase failure of imagination comes to mind. And this thing that Jeffrey Addicott, the director of the Center for Terrorism Law, told the NYT yesterday struck me as stunningly true, whitewashing all the squabbles over security airport security measures: “If you are trying to stop these people at the airport, you are too late.”
But mostly I’m happy to do what they want. Take off my shoes? Sounds freeing! Throw out my Pantene Pro-V? My hair looks better dirty! Wand me, scan me, put me in one of those giant tubes and blow puffer jets on me. I don’t mind. Except…one time a security person felt along the underwire of my bra, which raised some questions. And the photograph of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s singed undies on A8 in Tuesday’s paper of record did strike me as an eerie totem of privacy invasion beyond the scope of my own purview.
Broadly I feel like, whatever they need to do to pull off this black magic trick of safe aviation is all right by me. And in a narrower sense flying already feels like a surrender of autonomy. You give away your suitcase, let a stranger paw through your purse; you enter a vessel from which there’s no leaving until someone else releases you; they tell you when you can listen to your Taylor Swift and when you have to shut it off, when to sit down and strap in, when to open and close your shades; and you’re basically dumping your whole life-or-death fate into the uniformed lap of some invisible stranger behind a curtain at the front of the plane.
It has to be this way. We have to surrender to direction, and to incursions into our privacy, because the dangers of flying are unlike the dangers of doing anything else. There’s a fragility to the whole enterprise (hundreds of people, up in the clouds), a unique vulnerability to pocket-sized threats, and if something goes wrong there is no escape.
The problem, as I see it, is less an issue of privacy invasion and more the threat towed in by treating all passengers like suspects: profiling. I mean, who can blame the crew of December 27’s Northwest Flight 253 for being a little on edge, but what misery for that poor guy who got hauled out of the plane bathroom, cuffed, and interrogated because he was Nigerian, and because he’d had to hole up in the toilet after eating some bad clams or whatever (“I’d get belligerent if they pulled me out of the bathroom, too!” said my stepfather).
Shamefully, I once profiled somebody on a plane. I used to take Unisom to fly*, and on one trip I drowsed in and out next to a man in a knit cap, a rosary, and a Franciscan monk’s robe, which, I couldn’t make myself unnotice, was so synthetic as to seem like a Halloween costume. I then disappointed myself by noticing that he was reading a little book written in Arabic, and at one point I woke to him removing a large, metal cylinder from the overhead compartment. He sat with it on his lap, pried off the lid, and started rustling through plastic bags inside. I began, disappointingly, to try to haul myself away from the pull of the sleeping pill, to prepare to heroically rise to the occasion by yelping or pressing my flight attendant call button, when the monk produced a candy from his tin, unwrapped it, and ate it.
Was this poor monk aware of my monitoring him? If so, did it bother him? If I wasn’t restrained by Unisom and my better judgment, could I have made his life hell? I’ll never know, but I’m certainly retroactively bothered and disappointed by having reacted as I did.
Behavioral and racial profiling have pretty ugly worst-case scenarios, and I think they’d be easier to resist, they’d seem more clearly unethical, if we benefitted from the reassurance that people on terrorist watch lists were actually being watched.** The follow-up investigations into the Christmas Day attempt echo grim suggestions of the 9/11 Commission report–that the agencies in charge have the information they need to prevent terrorism, and they aren’t in full command of it.
*The two problems with Unisom are: 1) it’s possible to stay awake on it in a terrifyingly helpless, trapped-in-a-lifeless-body type of way, and 2) it doesn’t work for short hauls. Flying back to California from my stepbrother’s college graduation in Oregon, I walked to the back of the plane as it bounced through the sky, since sometimes I handle turbulence better if I’m in motion. My mother joined me and said to a flight attendant, “Tell her turbulence is no big deal.” The flight attendant simpered. “Oh, this isn’t turbulence. It’s just a bump in the road.” I smiled, and she added, “But if it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go.”
Swerving off the Southwest script, maybe, but her bitter pill did help me kick my Unisom dependence. Now when I fly through turbulence, instead of trying to knock myself out or persuade myself that there’s nothing wrong with the plane (impossible to know with any kind of reassuring certainty), I try to persuade myself that it’s all right if I die. Also, I drink a little wine.
**Which isn’t to suggest that such monitoring doesn’t happen at all. My stepbrother’s girlfriend, a flight attendant, told our family over dinner that once on a flight headed for DC an air marshall asked the crew to be mindful of the passenger in 4B, because he was on a terrorist watch list. The flight attendants watched him carefully, chilled by his “I Love New York” T-shirt, freaked by his carrying a briefcase on frequent trips to the bathroom, until one flight attendant discovered, in a reconnaissance mission down the aisle, that 4B was keeping a PlayStation in his case, and he seemed to have been afraid someone would try to steal it.