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Dec. 30 2009 - 3:01 pm | 64 views | 0 recommendations | 13 comments

Suspicious Behavior

security screening at denver airport

Image by dan paluska via Flickr

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.


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  1. collapse expand

    It’s a little hard to believe that, nine years after 9/11, these guys still don’t have their shit together. We can Twitter from the moon, more or less, but intelligence agencies still can’t share information? WTF?!

    • collapse expand

      I know! It makes me think they should screen people who work at intelligence agencies for depression, or force them to get together and do ropes courses or something.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      They CAN share, but they won’t. It’s not an infrastructure issue, or even a bureaucracy issue (for the most part)…it’s a territorial pissing-contest issue.

      To a certain extent, you can thank Jim Demint (R-SC) for TSA not having their shit together. Thank god for partisanship. We’d rather have airline bombers than workers forming unions.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        If it really is a territorial pissing contest, I’m frightened about the implications for the priorities of the intelligence community. But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

        I hadn’t known DeMint is blocking TSA unionization, and thanks for making that point. This really is an outrage:

        “Without collective bargaining, DeMint said, the TSA has ‘flexibility to make real-time decisions that allowed it to quickly improve security measures in response to this attempted attack.’” (via http://workinprogress.firedoglake.com)

        Swift deflation of that idea from same source: “Do the unions of pilots and flight attendants not allow airlines to make “real time decisions” or negatively impact security? No. Is there any evidence that allowing TSA employees to bargain for better wages and workplace conditions would have caught or stopped Abdulmutallab? No. Would AFGE, the union that would represent the 50,000 TSA employees, ever consider vetoing or delaying security measures at airports? No. Does any of that stop DeMint from being a blowhard and saying this anyway? No.”

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    I honestly don’t understand the irrational attitude that we have towards flying. I get that strapping yourself into a tin can high above the ground goes against our primitive instinct, but it is safer than nearly anything we do in our daily lives.

    I am perfectly happy to keep my shoes on and my shampoo in my bag and accept the risk that something might possibly happen at some point. All of this security (which apparently does little good anyway) is just an illusion of protection. After all, we are much more likely to die in a car accident (much, much, much more likely) and yet we don’t require everyone to drive 20 MPH and wrap freeway walls with bubble wrap. We are actually quite likely to die of heart disease and yet we don’t outlaw fried Twinkies.

    We want to feel safe no matter what the cost when our primitive alarms go off, but we aren’t really willing to make sacrifices that will actually save lives. Go figure.

    • collapse expand

      Oh, kett. I hear you! Allow me to try speaking for the silent, quivering aviophobe minority: we know flying is safe. It just doesn’t feel that way.

      The main issue for me, as I’ve implied, is control. Even if I’m more likely to die in an automobile crash, I have the illusion of control in a car. I know how to drive, and, being already on the ground, I’m potentially able to exploit my escape capabilities.

      Also, yes, as you say, there’s a primitive rejection of the science behind flying (how can something so heavy seem so light, unga unga?).

      And there’s the flying-coffin claustrophobia, the suffocating canned air-stuff, the flimsy gag-shop oxygen-masks…you get the picture.

      But I think part of the reason there’s such disproportionate effort allocated to keeping flying safe is that the specter of a plane crash suggests chaos. This is due, in part, to the horror of knowing hundreds of civilians died at once, doing something mundane and relatable like traveling to a family reunion. And that their individuality is somehow smeared by the event, so it makes us worry about the great leveler of death.

      The larger share of the chaos equation, I think, comes from the impression plane crashes give of civilization’s failure, in that we fall from a height (a height we were never meant to reach?), and in that our proudest technological achievements are subject to the ravages of entropy, too.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    The inability of intelligence agencies to communicate is a bit baffling. I have heard from TSA personnel that they do catch and stop people from flying on occasion, but it doesn’t make news unless it becomes a life threatening situation.

    as far as

    >”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.”

    I understand where you’re coming from, but that position sets up a slippery slope. I’m for the body scan because it’ll be more efficient and more of a deterrent. I don’t see it as an invasion of privacy the way I consider phone/wire tapping or checking library records to be.

    Sadly, though, there are loopholes to everything, and someone may still get through. This is a part of life, this not knowing. No matter where you are, you can’t be 100% safe. This doesn’t mean one has to or should live like in a constant paranoid state or take ridiculous risks because life could end at any moment. It could help people to live life more fully, because no matter how long it lasts, life is too short to crawl in a hole or hoard or do other weird things. sorry – tangent, but I think it’s related. We should do what we can for security and keep moving.

  4. collapse expand

    Great article. For a funny take on a NEW TSA initiative, check http://www.thelintscreen.com

  5. collapse expand

    “Illusion of safety” is a good phrase I remember years ago when the big fear was guns that were disguised as pagers. When you went through security they made you turn your beeper on and off an make it beep. I always thought”If I’m smart enough to make a gun that looks like a pager, don’t you think I’m smart enough to make it beep?” You’re never safe. My wife flew from California to DC and back with a steak knife in her bag. But she’s a pretty young white lady.

    Guess what? I’m also on the terror watch list. I don’t even have parking tickets. I can’t do self check in. I can’t print a boarding pass on line. I have to get to the airport extra earl because it usually takes 20 minutes to check my bag after I get to the counter. I wonder if the air marshal warns the staff about me.

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    About Me

    I am the Gina Welch whose first book, "In the Land of Believers," is forthcoming from Metropolitan Books in 2010. My book is sort of an outsider's odyssey, detailing the two years I spent undercover at Jerry Falwell's church in Lynchburg, VA, traveling the long, hard road from "WTF" to "I feel your pain." I'm originally from California, although most of the gold dust has rubbed off by now. These days you can find me swiveling in my desk chair on Capitol Hill or scrawling on the chalkboard at George Washington University.

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