Wednesday, July 13, 2011

AIRPORT SECURITY: How did we create this paranoid mess?

Security at Denver International Airport -- a giant empire of bureaucratic overkill?    

Flying from Washington, D.C., to Albany, NY, a few weeks ago for July 4th, I could not help but be reminded of the monstrosity we have made of airport security in this country. 

This simple one-hour, non-stop flight turned into a multi-hour affair each direction.  Going north, the security screeners stopped the long line and made me pass multiple times through the metal detector before discovering my cough drops had foil inside the paper wrapper.  Going south, it was a cemamic coffee mug -- a gift my sister made -- that set off the machines.  Coming home from a vacation last winter, they stopped me to confiscate a plastic bottle of listerine and a jar of pineapple marmalade (both slightly over 3 ounces).  Then there was the day last February I flew on a business trip wearing a metal ankle brace (I had twisted it in a clumsy running accident) and, as a result, got the full crotch patdown.

Airport metal detector, 1973.
 But the July 4th trip reminded me of something:  It has now been 38 years (January 1973) since anyone in America has enjoyed the simple pleasure of walking onto a commercial airline flight without being searched by a metal detector.  I am old enough to remember what that was like.  As a result, I have always considered airport searches strange and intrusive, ever since the first time I walked through one of those contraptions at the Albany, New York, airport in 1973 flying off to law school.  

But anyone born since 1973 (or anyone too young back then to remember) has never known anything else their entire lives.  To them, airport searches are simply part of the world.  Water runs downhill.  TVs change channels by remote control.  And obviously you walk through a metal detector to get on a plane.  

I see this as a big deal change in America -- the way we think about our personal freedoms.  Does anyone still remember the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution?  In case you forgot, here's what it says:  "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause,  supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the person or things to be seized."  

Today, we are all criminal suspects --  just because we show up at an airport.  Probable cause?  How silly.  How Twentieth Century !!

How this started:

It wasn't always this way.  Before 1973, the big threat to jet airplanes came from hijackers -- someone rushing into the airplane's cockpit, pulling out a gun, and telling the pilot "Take this plane to Cuba."  These were rare, about five per year, until the late 1960s when a spate of publicity made hijacking fashionable. The numbers suddenly jumped to 38 and 82 hijackings in 1968 and 1969. (And yes, some of these hijackings were actually ordered by the CIA as a covert weapon against Fidel Castro.)  

In late 1972, the Federal Aviation Admnistration decided to crack down on hijackers by requiring all airlines to start screening passengers and carry-on bags starting January 1973 -- one of the later signature acts of then-President Richard M. Nixon.     It mostly worked at first.  There was a rush to produce thousands of new metal detectors to handle the traffic, but the basic screening remained a small inconvenience.  Hijackings dropped off, the Cold War ended, and the world seemed safe.
Then came the attacks of September 11, 2001.  All nineteen of the September 11 terrorists had managed to trick the airport security system that day, sneaking box-cutters and other weapons past the screeners to attack the World Trade Center and Pentagon.  Not only did this reveal how weak the system was, but it showed just how crazy the bad guys had become.  No longer were we up against hijackers seeking asylum in Cuba.   Now, we were up against suicide bombers . 

How we use technology today in the TSA state.
Immediately, the system tightened.  Airline cockpit doors were ordered locked.  On flights into Washington, DC, passengers were barred from using the bathrooms during the last half hour.  Airport searches became major league, and passengers were ordered to start arriving two hours early before a flight to reach their gate on time.

Since then, each new incident has brought new rules.  After the shoe bomber, they made everyone take off their shoes.  After the shampoo bombers, they barred anyone from carrying liquids or gels over three ounces onto a plane, and required the smaller bottles be placed in separate clear plastic bags for inspection.  After the underwear bomber, they began the crotch patdowns and the scanners to see through clothes. 

Today, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which operates the system in airports across the country, is a $6.8 billion bureaucracy with 45,000 screeners, 1,500 inspectors, and 430 canine teams.  Add the private contractors, the hi-tech x-rays, scanners, and gun-powder sensors, and the police and military backups, and the taxpayer tab runs into tens of billions of dollars.  Then add all the lost time -- the hundreds of millions of hours Americans spend each year waiting on line or milling around airports, a direct drain on the economy.  One study even found that between 2001 and 2003, airport security resulted in 2,300 traffic deaths from people rushing to airports to stand in security lines.

Security?  Or bureaucratic overkill?

Don't get me wrong:  Terrorism is real, and letting a fanatic take control of a jet plane full of fuel and innocent passengers is unacceptable.  We need airport security screening, and we need to do it in smart and effective ways.  As for the TSA screeners, they are clearly good guys, doing tough jobs under high stress and almost always doing them well.  They keep us safe, they deter killers, and we all owe them a big thank you.

But this is still no excuse for the crazy mess we have allowed to evolve in the USA.  The cost -- in money, time, and personal rights -- is out of control.  There has to be a better way to police the sky against fanatics and psychopaths. 

Message from over-38 year-olds to under-38 year-olds:   It doesn't have to be this way.


David L. Durkin said...

Nixon was in office until August 9, 1974. Don't you think lowering the national speed limit to 55 m.p.h. rates as at least one major act in his last twenty months in office?

C.M. Mayo said...

Right on, Ken! (Sigh...)

Anonymous said...

You forgot to mention in the 1970s the armed guards that used to patrol airports. I watched a movie Cloak and Dagger here is the movie here.

Here i sthe summary and the airport scene showing armed police guards:

Here is the scene of the boy learning about the cartridge having secret data as he discovers it by accident. SecretVideogamecartridge.

11-year-old Davey, whose mother is dead and whose father is preoccupied with his own problems, has retreated into a world of video games and an imaginary hero-pal, the swashbuckling superspy Jack Flack. When an FBI agent about to be murdered slips him a video cartridge containing top-secret data, Davey is suddenly plunged into the intrigue and danger of real-life espionage. No adult believes his story, so he must run a gauntlet of violence and villainy aided only by a younger girl and the encouragement of "Jack Flack" at his side. How long can a comic-book role model guide him through this encounter with reality?

Here is the airport showdown