Monday, November 17, 2008

Our airport security system is a bureaucracy of silly stuff

by Jane Ahlin

A Transportation Security Administration employee working domestic security at the Minneapolis airport confiscated my toothpaste. Aware that if I made her mad, I might not be allowed on the flight to Fargo, I still said, “You know, that toothpaste already has been through airport security in Rome and Amsterdam earlier today.”

“Well, this is America,” she said. “It’s too big a size.”

“But most of it has been squeezed out,” I protested. “There probably aren’t two ounces left.”

“It’s too big a size,” she repeated.

She went on to take my hairspray, too, which was not “too big a size”; however, once she had gone through my entire carry-on, insisting that I add bits of make-up and eye-drops and stick deodorant to the one quart-sized clear plastic bag allowed for liquids, gels and pastes, there wasn’t room for it. (Yes, the hairspray can was the right size, but she wasn’t about to bend the one-clear-plastic-quart-sized-bag rule.)

I wanted to scream, “What does this silly ritual have to do with security?”

But I wanted to get home more. So I smiled and she smiled and as soon as I’d retrieved my shoes, belt and sweater from a bin at the end of the conveyor belt and put them back on, I was on my way.

The effectiveness of airport security brings to mind a relative who kept the key to her back door (west) on a nail pounded into the siding (south) – high and around the corner but easily reachable from the back stoop. She admitted to having no illusions a thief wouldn’t find the key, but she was pretty sure she’d outsmarted “kids and drunks.”

That’s what has happened to the annoying and well-established ritual of airport security: It may outsmart kids and drunks, but terrorists? Dream on.

The silliness of airport security was made clear in an article in this month’s Atlantic by Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent for the magazine. Goldberg decided to find out what it would take to get airport security to stop him as a possible terrorist. To that end he carried things on his person, such as “pocketknives, matches, dust masks, lengths of rope, cigarette lighters, nail clippers, 8-ounce tubes of toothpaste,” and “inflatable Yasser Arafat dolls.” Yes, he even carried box cutters through security. On one trip, he put the big toothpastes into the front pockets of his pants and nobody noticed. (Why didn’t I think of that?)

On another trip he wore a neoprene “Beerbelly” across his stomach which contained the contents of two cans of beer, and the security folks didn’t notice, although they did confiscate the bottle of water in his carry-on. On other occasions, he carried a Hezbollah flag or wore T-shirts with slogans such as “Osama Bin Laden, Hero of Islam.” Never was he kept from boarding a plane.

With the help of Bruce Schneier, a man who is on a crusade to revise and improve airline safety measures, Goldberg discovered how easy it is to forge boarding passes on a home computer (including upgrading to “platinum/elite status”) and to falsely label things as medicines. Once, Goldberg even talked his way onto a flight using a fake boarding pass and not carrying a picture ID.

More sobering, he learned how to circumvent the “no-fly list” and discovered how lax security measures are for the thousands of people who work at airports. He also pointed out the vulnerability of the long lines of folks waiting to go through security, where a bomb would kill more people than a bomb on any one flight. What Goldberg made clear was that seven years after 9/11, Americans ought to be getting more from the $7 billion TSA budget than a bureaucracy of silly stuff.

My favorite anecdote in Goldberg’s piece had Schneier carrying two 12-ounce bottles labeled “saline solution” through security. Asked by the agent why he had two, he pointed to his face and said, “Two eyes.” He was waved through.

Next time I fly, I’m labeling my toothpaste “hemorrhoid cream.”

Ahlin is a regular contributor to The Forum’s commentary pages. E-mail

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