Things That Happen in Airports

Been there, done that, threatened arrest, got the t-shirt.

It hasn’t been a fun few years for flying, has it?  First with the shoes in the bins, then with the liquids, now with the pat-downs:  security screening is easily the worst part of going anywhere by air.

But there is something hysterical in the complaints over what the Transportation Security Agency is doing lately.  The now-infamous Don’t Touch My Junk blogger from San Diego got so much attention — first for doing what he did, then for saying what he said — that many in this country are now taking seriously the idea of scaling back TSA’s power and procedures.

As of today, a Florida airport has dropped TSA as its security provider, and will be going with a private firm instead.  Dude:  That’s some second-world, reactionary, throwbacky stuff right there.

I can’t support this, and I’m pretty sure it won’t end well.  Not with things like this still making the news.

22 years ago, the U. S. Department of State issued a memo that got posted in embassies worldwide, regarding a “general threat” against certain American airlines during the holiday travel season.  This was before the 24-hour news cycle, before college and grad students like us had e-mail accounts; the warning certainly didn’t make it to the evening news.  If you had access to an embassy you were good, though.

Problem was, no one I knew did.

There were lots of problems that year.  1988 should have been the last year when an unaccompanied suitcase could make it on a major commercial airliner.  One did, fatally, and things changed.  For me, at least.  More on that later.

I think it’s a great thing to exercise what you are sure is freedom:  to seek the removal of details from any routine, whether it’s the airport-security hokey-pokey or any other.  It does more than feel powerful; it may be the duty of citizens in a free society to speak up against what they see as limits to liberties (cough, USA PATRIOT Act, cough).  To claim that those details serve no purpose or might be illegal may not always be solid argumentative ground, but at least it counts as speaking up.  That’s useful.

You should expect when you’re asking these questions that someone might ask a few back.  And while we’re on the subject:  Why doesn’t this happen anymore, in American airports?  Where are the questions?  Why just the scan of documents, the swipe of a pen, the nod?  Is that really how we want to play it now, in the world we know we’re navigating?

But this is all part of the same dance around the subject.  If we’re talking about airport security, what we are discussing is life and death.  Easy to forget that, isn’t it?  When you’re lining up with your laptop and wheelie bag, slipping off your shoes, and someone confronts you about your belt, there goes your last nerve.

Except that airport security is not about you, or your convenience.  It’s about life.

Just consider.  Consider how it feels to look back over two decades, after.  After the thing happened that never would have happened if that one suitcase hadn’t been loaded on a connecting flight (in Germany, ironically enough), 22 years ago.  Consider wondering what the world might look like otherwise.  In this world, the world after, it can be only one way.  One decision, one flight caught or missed, one goodbye spoken or forgotten, one degree of separation greater or less, makes the most critical difference.  You can never cross back over that line.

How can you unlearn what you learn in this way?  Do you want to find out?

Terrorism 101:  it’s not about the people who die.  It’s about the people who knew them, were there when it happened, or had reason to care.  It’s about the wound in the hearts of the survivors.

I am sorry that this new argument over safety, rights, and limits (but not, somehow, life) has reached such a level of rage and ridicule.  I wish that those who know why the new security measures are necessary were doing more to communicate their reasons for them.  But if this is the sorriest I feel, I’ll be thrilled.

It can all be so much worse.


2 responses to “Things That Happen in Airports

  1. I have always found the TSA people to be really nice, too.

    But it’s true: their communications leave something to be desired. Perhaps they need to try something in a flash mob. They’re dressed for choreography, after all. 🙂

  2. I appreciate your perspective on this, Annie. Of course, you’re right. Flying is no longer – and might never be again – about getting from point A to point B. It IS about life and death. Period. I feel it keenly every time I fly alone: what if…? What about my kids…?
    As you observed, the TSA could have benefitted from some good PR during this debacle. As a “bloated” govt agency, when accused you don’t stiffen up & say: ‘you will follow our procedures or else’ … you show humility & explain your head off. TSA should tell stories about danger thwarted, or passengers helped. I got pulled aside a month ago for having larger-than-allowed liquids in my carry-on (I forgot to pack them in the checked bag). The TSA guy who pulled me aside showed me how they analyze the liquids, & which ones DON’T get scrutinized because they’re considered pharmaceutical. He even showed me how to re-pack them. He didn’t confiscate my stuff; he didn’t belittle me. He was gracious; calm; patient. I was impressed – that one humane interaction will linger with me longer than a pat-down or body scan. I’m with you on this: I choose life, even if it means delays & searches at airports.

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