ARC's 1st Law: As a "progressive" online discussion grows longer, the probability of a nefarious reference to Karl Rove approaches one

Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Joys of Travel

Peggy Noonan feels my pain....

If Cattle Flew
Look at the airports. Why would terrorists bother with seaports?
Thursday, February 23, 2006 12:01 a.m.

We are debating port security. While we're at it, how about airport security? Does anyone really believe that has gotten much better since 19 terrorists hijacked four planes five years ago?

This week I flew to Florida and back to give a speech and got another up-close look at how well the Transportation Security Administration is running the show. And it's clear that no one jokes about TSA screeners frisking grandma anymore, not because it isn't still happening, but rather because it's not even darkly funny anymore.

6:10 a.m., Tuesday two days ago, LaGuardia Airport. A long line of what appeared to be roughly a thousand people was snaking down a hall past newsstands and shops. Chaos and an hour wait to get through security. A woman in an airport security uniform patrolled on the left, curtly instructing us to move to the right. A cleaning crew on the right barked, "Coming through, move please!" We stood nervously wherever we wouldn't be yelled at. No one tried to help us, to calm the fears of those about to miss their flights. There was a lot of yelling--"I need your ID open and faced forward! No, you must put that in the bin!" After 45 minutes I got to the first security checkpoint, where I was directed to stand aside for extra clearance. I walked to the rubber matt, stood spread eagled in the Leonardo position, arms out, legs out, as a sleepy stranger ran a wand around my body and patted me for bombs. "Now I know how a cow feels in a cattle pen," I said. I told her how carelessly we'd been treated. She was surprised. No one told her there were a lot of people waiting in line.

I gave the speech that night, and returned the next morning to the West Palm Beach airport for the flight home. Here, at 9:30 a.m., it was worse. Again roughly a thousand people, again all of them being yelled at by airport and TSA personnel. Get your computers out. Shoes off. Jackets off. Miss, Miss, I told you, line four. No, line four. So much yelling and tension, and all the travelers in slump-shouldered resignation and fear. The fingers of the man in front of me were fluttered with anxiety as he grabbed at his back pocket for his wallet so the woman who checks ID would not snap at him or make him miss his flight.

This was East Germany in 1960. It was the dictatorship of the clerks, and the clerks were not in a good mood.

After a half hour in line I get to the first security point.

"Linfah," says the young woman who checked my ID.

"I'm sorry?"

"Linfah." She points quickly and takes the next person's ID.

"I'm so sorry, I don't understand."

Now she points impatiently. How stupid could I be?

Line Five. Oh. OK.

Ahead of me, throwing bags in bins, is a young mother with a two or three year old girl. The mother is tense, flustered. Bags, bottles, a stroller to break down and get on the conveyer belt. A security agent yelling: "Keep your boarding pass in your hand at all times." The little girl is looking up, anxious. All these yelling adults, and things being thrown. "My doll!" she says as her mother puts it quickly in a gray bin. "We'll get it on the other side!" says the mother. She grabs her daughter's hand roughly.

"Take off your sneakers!" a clerk yells.

The mother stops, hops, quickly removes her sneakers. Her daughter has already walked through the magnetometer and is wandering on the other side. She looks around: Where's mommy?

Mommy gets her sneakers in a bin, on the belt, gets through the magnetometer.

I'm relieved. Her daughter holds her mother's leg. They begin to walk on.

A TSA clerk shouts to another, "You didn't check the sneakers. You have to put the sneakers through."

The second clerk yells--"Your daughter has to go through again!"

The little girl is scared--What did I do wrong? I'm sorry, mommy.

The mother is tense, gets a look.

I lift my chin at the TSA agent, smile, and say softly, "Miss, that poor girl with the child, she is having a tough time. The little girl is scared and--"

"We are following procedures!" said the TSA agent. Her mouth was twisted in anger.

I nodded and said softly, "I know, I'm just saying--a little gentle in your tone."

She looked at my ticket and smiled.

"You have been chosen by the computer for extra attention."

"What?"

"You have been chosen by the computer for extra attention."

I am almost always picked for extra screening. I must be on a list of middle aged Irish-American women terrorists. I know a message is being sent: We don't do ethnic profiling in America. But that is not, I suspect, the message anyone receives. The message people receive is: This is all nonsense. What they think is: This is all kabuki. We're being harassed and delayed so politicians can feel good. The security personnel themselves seem to know it's nonsense: they're always bored and distracted as they go through my clothing, my stockings, my computer, my earrings. They don't treat me like a terror possibility, they treat me like a sad hunk of meat.

I don't think most of us get extra screening because they think we are terrorists. I think we get it because they know we're not. They screen people who are not terrorists because it helps them pretend they are protecting us, in the same way doctors in the middle ages used to wear tall hats: because they couldn't cure you. It's all show.

I boarded my plane. Settled in, took out my notebook, wrote my notes. I turned to the man next to me. "Did you have a bad time with security?"

His eyebrows went up and he shook his head. "It's terrible," he said, in an English accent. He and his fiancé had come for a few days to southern Florida, they'd had hassles coming and going. He said, with wonder, that he was a smoker, that he always carried a keepsake, a gold cigarette lighter. Before he'd left for Florida he'd emptied it so it wouldn't light, and he showed it to the security people at the airport. They told him he couldn't take it on the flight. He asked them to send it to him, they said they couldn't, he'd have to go back to the ticket area and give it to them. But then he'd miss his flight. "It's your problem," they said. He wound up giving the lighter to an airline clerk. "An $800 lighter! Empty!" He didn't know if he'd ever see it again. He said, "It's hard when"--and he put out his hands and shook them--"you're already a bit of nervous about flying!"

It is almost five years since 9/11, and since the new security regime began. Why hasn't it gotten better? Why has it gotten worse? It's a disgrace, this airport security system, and it's an embarrassment. I'm sure my Englishman didn't come away with a greater respect or regard for America.

So we're all talking about port security this week, and the debate over the Bush administration decision to allow United Arab Emirates company to manage six ports in the United States. That debate is turning bitter, and I wonder if the backlash against President Bush isn't partly due to the fact that everyone in America has witnessed or has been a victim of the incompetence of the airport security system. Why would people assume the government knows what it's doing when it makes decisions about the ports? It doesn't know what it's doing at the airports.

This is a flying nation. We fly. And everyone knows airport security is an increasingly sad joke, that TSA itself often appears to have forgotten its mission, if it ever knew it, and taken on a new one--the ritual abuse of passengers.

Now there's a security problem. Solve that one.

The airport security gauntlet as described by Peggy is something I go through everytime I travel. I've been flying regularly from St Louis to La Guardia, Newark, or JFK for approximately 6 months now. On occassion I've had the opportunity to fly to Raleigh-Durham and have to say that the screening there is 10x better than the what I have to deal with in St Louis or New York, although it's like preferring the pain of getting a cavity filled to that of a root canal. But, my point is that the smaller airports are much easier to deal with.

One of the major problems that I find is that the screeners in the large airports are all a bunch of jackasses. They literally feel that they're doing us a favor by putting us in the extra long line when we've got a flight leaving in 30 minutes. And God forbid that you don't take off your shoes... some airports will let you walk through, some won't. Who knew that this idiot would make us all strip down and go barefoot each time we wanted to board a plane?

But I would like to say that my recent experience with security in both Ireland and the UK (two trips there in the last 6 months) has been much more pleasant than anything experienced in the US (other than perhaps Raleigh). While they also have the cattle lines funneling people to the checkpoint, they are much more agreeable and understanding of people that are not familiar with the process. As a frequent traveler, I now am essentially ready to go through before I hit the airport terminal: belt off, cell phone in bag (powered off), car keys in bag, watch off, coat off, laptop in hand, shoes untied. For those that don't travel frequently, they're dumbfounded (as Peggy was) by the directions and commands shouted by government employees.

If they were to break into staccato German, it would have a much better effect, frankly. Obeying commands by someone who has the weakest grasp of the English language, proper pronunciation, and common courtesy is quite demeaning. One of the benefits of Raleigh, Dublin, and Glasgow is that they have flat screen displays showing animations and instructions on what you need to do... This is much easier to comprehend than some yahoo walking up and down the line, whose primary responsibility in the TSA is to take the gray bins that have gone through security and move them to the front. Finally, they provide simple vending machines near the security line so you can buy an envelope and postage to send items home. Just pay for the items, put your things in the envelope, and drop it in the post box that's just a few paces up the line.

When I was in JFK, there were three entry points into the security maze... each one numbered. There were no descriptions as to what each entry point was for, so I approached one and showed my ID and boarding pass. "Wrong line, go to the next one... this is premium level," said the TSA employee whose salary I'm paying, failing to break a smile or even look me in the eyes. I head to the next line... same deal, but this is the advantage line. Keep in mind that I've just spent 8 hours on a plane from the UK which connected through Dublin.

I finally get to the appropriate entry point and show my id and boarding pass. Yep, this is the line. I start winding through the cattle yard.

the most frustrating part about this incident at JFK? THERE WAS NO ONE WAITING IN LINE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The only thing that comforts me about flying is that if ANYONE tried to replicate a 9/11 hijacking, the entire group of passengers would be at their throats in about 15 seconds.

***Update***
Insty & Wizbang on the subject as well. Wizbang echoes my sentiments regarding airport security - the passengers are the security.


Your Co-Conspirator,
ARC: St Wendeler

Comments (1)
Anonymous said...

What a great piece of writing! You captured the frustrations of modern travel exactly. Hopefully, Peggy Noonan will see this piece and recognize a kindred spirit.