Autumn Adventures through Airport Security
With Thanksgiving and other holiday travel on the horizon, get ready once again for a groping good time going through airport security.
Flying to New York City from Pittsburgh a couple of Mondays back, I was subjected to a truly hands-on experience from a TSA agent. Ahead of me in two separate lines -- one for first-class passengers, the other for those of us in steerage -- were two different screening devices. For first class, the passengers were directed through that metal detector cleverly disguised as a doorframe; for the rest of us, there was the dreaded full-body scanner.
As I was removing my hat-shoes-jacket-keys-cell-phone-pens-coins-chewing-gum, I noticed that the TSA woman directing screening traffic ahead told some folks in my line to go through the metal detector doorway instead of standing spread-eagle in front of the scanner. So, naturally, when it got to be my turn, I told her, "I want to go through the metal detector."
The TSA agent immediately responded with, "Aw, you shouldn't have said that." Then she coolly cocked her head to the right and spoke firmly into her shoulder mic: "We've got an opt-out."
Oh, yes...she was certainly nice enough about it, but she might as well have said, "We've got a refusenik," or, better, "We've got someone who still has his dignity."
I was ushered around both machines and told to stand on a welcome-mat-sized rubber pad with two footprints, slightly splayed, printed in its center. Another agent waited patiently with me there, and, seeing that I was annoyed, asked me if I'd seen the Steelers-Ravens game the night before. After some obligatory banter, a third agent signaled me over to his own splayed-footprints mat and began the full-body pat-down. He frowned a lot as he did it, silently assuring me that he was not enjoying this public personal scrutiny any more than I was.
The whole touchy-feely experience irked me, but could I really blame the TSA workers? They were -- what's the popular phrase? -- just following orders. In an economy where almost one in ten is out of work, these particular workers most likely don't want to rock the boat (or tip the airplane, as the case may be). Rules are rules, after all.
As a sidebar, it wasn't until hours later that, when I was on the phone explaining my adventure to a friend, she shared with me her experience. She happened to be flying out of Newark on business around the same time, and, like me, she asked the TSA agent if she could go through the good old-fashioned metal detector. Not only did they make her go through the scanner, but they also did the body search. A TSA twofer.
At least there is good news: everyone behind us observing the drama at both airports couldn't help but feel much, much safer after seeing the two of us given The Treatment.
This shared experience again made me consider how profiling, along the lines of what the Israelis do, would be a much more effective way to help narrow intrusive screening. In fact, a passenger requesting politely to go through the metal detector should immediately present a tip-off that he's a patriotic American with some self-respect -- not that he has something scary to hide.
The whole system seems "over-produced," and maybe the drama is designed to ward off the real bad guys. I don't know. But, like I mentioned, there are better ways to have tighter, smarter security.
So, now, with my get-together with agent Hands Solo behind me -- and he was satisfied that I was "okay to fly" -- I was allowed to go to the conveyor belt and gather my things from those sparkling, Bon-Ami-cleaned, grey-plastic boxes. I quickly re-dressed and replaced my hat-shoes-jacket-keys-cell-phone-pens-coins-chewing-gum.
As I was heading for my gate, I couldn't help thinking about how many people were nonchalantly assuming the "I surrender" position, arms reaching skyward, as they posed in front of the full-body scanner. As a society, we seem to have gotten a collective "whatever" attitude about a procedure that would have caused us embarrassment a dozen years ago. I was reworking Ben Franklin's pronouncement (woefully, though aptly, overused in today's political climate), hearing him say that "those who would trade dignity for some temporary security" end up losing them both.
One of my brothers-in-law has pretty much given up on flying altogether. On long trips, he takes the train -- nobody and nothing gets scanned. "Just grab your bags and jump aboard," he says. "You don't have to strip first."
One can only hope that along with a change of administration in November 2012, perhaps, just as importantly, we can have a change of thinking. Then maybe we can begin to reclaim our airports -- and our dignity.