Frisking Grandma

 

by John Tyler Connoley

August 18, 2004

 

Airport security used to annoy me. As I was waiting in line to have my bags scanned and my metal detected I'd think about how ineffective the whole system was. I'd consider ways someone with evil intention could easily break through this security facade erected to make us feel good about flying. I'd think about why it is our society needs to be coddled into believing we're safe when safety is a myth. And, I'd become annoyed.

 

Then nineteen men hijacked four planes using box cutters as weapons.

 

Now airport security doesn't annoy me; it exasperates me. As I'm standing in line in my stocking feet, I watch a woman walk through the metal detector with a huge glass vase of roses. I think, "Wasn't a vase one of the weapons used by Colonel Mustard in the Billiard Room?" And I get exasperated. I watch the guard randomly select a Hispanic grandmother to be specially searched, while I get waved through (even though I exactly fit the profile of a terrorist like Timothy McVey). And I get exasperated. I watch everyone stopping to take out their laptops and have them scanned separately, and I think of all the PDAs, cell phones, and other gadgets that could just as easily disguise a bomb. And, guess what, I get exasperated.

 

Before 9/11 there might have been an excuse for our government's insistence that metal detectors at airports would keep the country safe. Our false-security system hadn't yet been proven a sham, but now we should know better. Why is it that after 9/11 we spent billions of dollars trying to perfect an airport security system that will never keep us safe from terrorists? Why didn't we put those resources someplace where they could make a real difference, instead of focusing so much energy on making this one system infinitesimally better?

 

To be clear, I'm not against scanning bags. I just don't think frisking Hispanic grandmothers and making people walk barefoot through the airport is going to stop a terrorist with a death wish, and I find it condescending that the government thinks I'd believe it would -- particularly post-9/11.

 

I do feel safer than I did before 9/11, but only because so many of the passengers now recognize the true ineffectiveness of airport security. If I were on a plane and someone attempted to hijack it, I'm sure the passengers would rise up and overpower the would-be villain. That's a much better security system than the Rube Goldberg scheme devised by the government.

 

But, unfortunately, that only works if a terrorist uses the same tactic those nineteen men did in 2001. The nature of terrorism is that it's creative violence -- a small group of people using a tiny hole in the security system to carry out an attack. Terrorist attacks are successful only when we don't see them coming; otherwise, they'd be thwarted.

 

With this in mind, I'd like to see us give up the goose chase for a failsafe security system. Then, instead of wasting inordinate amounts of time and money on ever more complicated systems and technology, we could begin looking at some of the other areas where national security is more severely threatened. It's as if we're spending all our time building a perfect mosquito net around our bed, when we haven't fixed the gaping holes in the screen door.

 

I'd like to see us spending more money on local law enforcement and fire departments, and less on electronic bomb sniffers. When a terrorist attack occurs (and it will), we're going to want top-notch police officers, firefighters, and EMTs who are well equipped and can respond quickly. We're going to want people who can think on their feet and change plans midstream, not hunks of metal sitting in airports beeping inanely.

 

Instead of spending time developing new ways of randomly searching airline passengers, I'd like to see us training dockworkers and truck drivers to spot suspicious activities at ports and on roads. We've seen how a terrorist hijacking was able to cripple the airline industry for days. Are we spending any time thinking about how we would get the trains and trucks running again if someone simultaneously blows up shipping containers in five major cities? In the day of just-in-time inventories, a well-placed attack could cripple our entire economy, not just our airlines. We should be spending our resources planning for this inevitability.

 

I'd also like to see us admitting that terrorism is sneaky, creative, and ultimately unavoidable, instead of pretending that removing our shoes at the airport is a minor inconvenience that will prevent another 9/11. As we learned on that day, a group of people that's been lulled into believing they're safe can be hijacked and flown into a skyscraper. But a group of people that knows the real danger they're in can save lives, just as they did on United Airlines Flight 93 over that field in Pennsylvania.

 

I'm tired of being lied to by a government that believes I can't be trusted with the truth about how unsafe the world is. Don't waste my time with a big magic show of beeping machines and random grandma-searches. Frankly, it doesn't make me feel any safer. It just makes me exasperated to see my tax dollars misspent.

 

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Copyright © 2004 by John Tyler Connoley

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