I arrived at the Los Angeles Airport more than an hour early. I had made good time on the highway. I wasn’t checking any bags, so with my boarding pass in hand I proceeded to the gate. I was greeted with a security line that was almost an hour long. The line snaked around the terminal, out the door, and stretched down the sidewalk. At the front of the line sat a lone Transportation Safety Administration officer studiously checking identification with a jeweler’s loupe, the small magnifying glass jewelers use to look for flaws in gemstones.
It is little wonder that polls consistently find that the TSA is the most hated U.S. government agency, even more despised than the Internal Revenue Service. Americans believe that the TSA is rude, invasive, obnoxious and dull-witted. Sure, there are good, honest, hard-working folks employed with the TSA. I have met some of them. However, I tend to share the negative assessment that airport security is not firing on all cylinders.
When I finally reached the security station, I discovered the source of the delay. In addition to TSA incompetence, the lines were backed up going through a new security machine ironically called a “Rapid Scan.”
The “Rapid Scan” is one of the new x-ray machines recently employed by the TSA to perform full-body scans on airline passengers.
It is truly a testament to the adaptability of the American spirit that not only does an hour long wait at security barely raise eyebrows, but passengers are willing to submit to a virtual strip-search with nary a whimper as well. Perhaps it is ambivalence. I suspect, however, that after the abuse of waiting in lines for everything from parking to security, stripping down to one’s BVDs is a small price to pay to be allowed to sit down.
The federal government has also convinced a great many Americans that the TSA is the thin gray and blue line standing between the terrorists and their wives and children. As far as the federal government is concerned, long, slow-moving lines, the invasion of privacy and the dull-witted rudeness of the TSA agents are the costs of peace of mind.
Apparently, I am not the only one who believes the Transportation Safety Administration has an inflated opinion of itself. I wish I had the guts of Tennessee pilot Michael Roberts.
Last week, Roberts, a first officer for ExpressJet Airlines, refused to take a body scan and then refused to be “manhandled” by the TSA giving him a physical pat-down. Roberts went home and is now waiting to see if he will lose his job. According to newspaper reports, Roberts said that like all Americans, he has safety concerns, but called TSA a “make-work” program that doesn’t make travel safer.
And he is correct.
The TSA has largely succeeded in enforcing its own rules. How many bombers has the TSA thwarted since its inception? The answer is zero. Contrast that figure with the gallons and gallons of hand lotion the agency has confiscated. As bags pass on the conveyer belt, agents stare intently at x-ray screens. What could they be looking for? Could it be that one of these passengers standing in line could be attempting to smuggle a bomb on board? Of course not! The agents are looking for yogurt! They are looking for baby formula! They are looking for deodorant larger than the allowable three ounces.
Often, the security lines move slowly because the TSA has not assigned enough agents to pour over every passenger’s identification with a jeweler’s loupe and a black-light. But wait, all 19 of the “murderingscumwhoarecurrentlyburninginhell” responsible for the attacks on 9/11 had legal identification. In fact, the only reason we know who they are is because they presented proper, legal identification at the security station. The same is true of Richard Reid as well as the Christmas day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
As for the “Rapid Scan? Alas, it is only rapid compared to an MRI. Passengers must stand still in a box for 10 seconds and then wait for the machine to analyze the data it has compiled. Oh, and you have to take the money out of your pockets because this brilliant piece of equipment apparently can’t distinguish between a dollar bill and a bomb!
Airline passengers now have a choice: virtual strip-search or be subjected to the much longer process of being physically groped by a stranger. Sadly, in the same way that travelers now look at an hour wait in a security line as, “Hey, that’s not so bad.” We will also get used to having our privacy further infringed upon. The long and short of it is that the entire process has lost its civility and is on the verge of losing any semblance of dignity. No? Consider that the not-so-rapid-scan is also unable to scan inside the body cavity. How long will it be before all travelers are asked to drop trousers, bend over and cough?
The body scanner would not have discovered the explosives hidden by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and yet Americans continue to be told that the TSA is making travelers safe. I am of the opinion that the security measures at airports have largely been successful only at irritating passengers and making air travel more unpleasant than, well, just about anything else I can think of.
(Joseph C. Phillips is author of “He Talk Like a White Boy.”)